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THE first scene sets itself and a few characters take place. Before we tap the truth, I want you to meet the camera eye.
A simple bourgeois shot of the Prudential looking calm like Sunday morning and the sports page. On the pavement three dark figures from an ominous Other World spin a tiny street caper. Cut away and up through telephone wires to a rolling grey sky. Then abruptly to a bloodless flower child running running running along Graduate-white walls, down the empty spaces of a railroad yard, into some urban junkland moor, all this under a categorically blue sky and the electronic fallout of Streetchoir music tortured backwards through a tape-recorder. A conversation is heard. The flower child finds a blackjacket friend reading Bronze Beauties Revue on the front seat of a broken-down auto. They talk in silence. Close the scene with a shot of the flower child sikpping stones. Near him a broken-down van sunk in backwater.
The title (cf. "Along Comes Mary" by the Association: "Desire is the fire in the eyes of chicks whose sickness is the games they play.") promises a big stick production, easy to follow, fun to see. Desire isn't easy to follow. Without resorting to gimmicks--superimposition, fast motion, slow motion, whizbang lab work--director Tim Hunter manages to sideswipe crusted habits and expectations of perception, daring us to see just a little more than we see. Let me introduce a critical term, a metaphor, a clue for everybody. This is a marijuana movie, Mary Jane on a magical mystery tour.
(The reference is not facile. Paul McCartney once said: With any kind of thing, my aim seems to be to distort it, distort it from what we know it as, even with music and visual things, and to change it from what it is to see what it could do. To see the potential in it all. To take a note and wreck it and see in that note what else there is in it, that a simple act like distorting has caused. It's all trying to create magic, it's all trying to make things happen so that you don't know why they've happened.")
A MARIJUANA movie, then. In olden, non-pop times it might have been called Romance, an exploration into that cold, diamond land between reality and fantasy. For the Romancer it's a terrifying land, more real than real, full of wind-smooth souls and forces which nudge us through life. "Sleeping or waking, we hear not the airy footsteps of the strange things that almost happen," wrote Nathaniel Hawthorne. Or, to quote Hunter's epigraph for Desire: "In the vocabulary of the sub-conscious there is a word for every shape and sound that goes unnoticed in passing time. Though we will never speak them, these words define our souls." Desire tries to lure those mysteries, words and footsteps, into the dusty ranges of our senses.
Let me caution you: the critic, a poor lumber-jack indeed, may lose the forest and the trees in this chase after the shadows of feeling which the movie stirs, the darker caverns and corridors of the mind. Don't get boxed in or out. Desire demands that you display agility, make your own leaps from what is shown to what is suggested. How much you discover depends on your participation in the art, ultimately on the dimensions of your memories, experience and imagination.
The plot circles about Anastasia Vote (Nora Paley), sad-eyed lady of the psychic lowlands, flipped down and out on methedrine. In more level moments she makes love to at least four men (Jim Flinsch, Eric Isen, Robert Chapman, Jim Calvert). Anxiously to the rescue come two impotent saviors, her brother Michael Twelvetrees (Dan Deitch) and former boyfriend Steven Blaine (Dan Chumley). Twelvetrees has his own problem; he surreptitiously takes photographs of himself making love to girlfriend Samantha Quentin (Maeve Kinkead). And Blaine is afraid to approach Anastasia. He keeps watch from a phone booth near her apartment, smoking cigarettes and counting the gangbusters who pass in and out of Eden's Gates. Finally he pockets his dime and acts. Hunter carefully draws that last scene to a beautiful and appropriate conclusion, a full circle dead end. Then he inexplicably attacks the mood, stomps and squashes it with a ponderous, misleading statement from the sponsor.
BUT you needn't worry about the plot. The intrigue of Desire lies in what happens to what is happening. To get at the potential of Anastasia Vote, the ineffable potential of magic and mystery, Hunter destroys the narrative form, that apple-pie order march of elements we all know and love--elements like time, cause and effect, motivation (spell it out, son), resolution. Yes, they all break down. (Like the junkyard, like Anastasia--you've got it now, BREAKDOWN is the theme.) The threads of plot tempt you to join a surrealistic scavenger hunt. Don't. Don't fumble about for a catenary of explanation and logistic. You're likely to miss the vision, and the vision is Anastasia Vote.
In a disconnected house, on a disconnected morning, Anastasia comes suddenly upon a little girl (Karen Ascheim), the daughter of a married lover. There is a chilling scene. Two witches in a sun-lit room, mirror images through time. Anastasia confronts her small imp of the perverse, little Pearl in a red frock. What does she feel before that inscrutable child? Envy for times past, fear for the child's future indifference before accusation, shame? Nothing so simple. In that transcendent silence, white spheres of guilt and innocence flash and tumble, collide and fuse. Souls changes places, lose and gain whole years. Nobody moves.
She is deep, our girl Anastasia. She is a being. All the others are characters, shadows of her illumination. I call her a witch, but she is not a promiscuous variation on Sinister Madonna (the Hunter girls?), classic marble zombie who ruled with an iron broomstick. No, Desire tells of human witches and the witchcraft of love. Strange fires burn here, and one could look a long time without understanding. Apparently Anastasia is destroying herself. Others come to pillage, sometimes to help, and lo! discover that they have been deceived. No warm sweets from the blaze. In this parable of bad love she takes the best of them as fuel for the upward rush of her mystery, her growth and strength.
LET me introduce another helpful metaphor to capture Desire's demon trick, time, the medium as message. You know what a dream looks like? Disjointed, jarring, a succession of pictures in queer sequence. Think about dreams, then try to take a close look at this movie. It's impossible. Desire unfolds at a curious distance as if its people and actions were washed in the gideon colors of Dream. The salient elements of Dream are speed and deliberation. Desire approximates both. The plot careens arrogantly through a disequence of scenes, no connections provided: the junkyard; Twelvetrees in a hallway, in a bathroom; Anastasia on a long walk; Twelvetrees making love to Samantha; Blaine in his telephone booth. If we seize on any pattern, it may be a crazy spiral about Anastasia herself, about her diffuse Presence. But "spiral" promises too much. Montage is better, montage through time (close your eyes and picture Dream), fishcakes, a patchwork of dreams, none preparing us for the next, each visually striking in itself, together creating an effect of speed.
Now of deliberation. Although the dream hurdles past transitions, the dreamer himself indulges in sensuous appraisal of detail within each scene, a process which his heavy mind associates with long periods of time. This juxtaposition of speed and deliberation gives the dream that jagged pace which we recall in first waking moments. Desire, I have argued, has speed. Within each scene, however, Hunter achieves slowness by letting the camera, as if two joints high, revel in the immediate, fix joyfully on shapes, colors, a green stick of incense, a miniature toy horse on wheels, the rise of bubbles in near boiling water.
Sometimes the camera holds too long. A motorcycle idles along for ninety seconds, a dull out-of-focus journey, a bum trip. In another scene six consecutive point-of-view shots reach for tedium. But the hiatus of time often catches qualities unnoticed by a tick-tock eye. A long closeup--almost a still--of Samantha's fragile face penetrates to the madonna calm and compassion she possesses. The epiphany is not just the result of Maeve Kinkead's fine acting. Hunter takes the time to look, really look--and we see. When Anastasia washes body paint off her legs, the marijuana camera stops time to absorb the beauty of this motion still-life, the colors of paint and flesh, the dissolution of the paint in water, her wonderfully slow movements to the drawn-out Streetchoir music and lyrics.
ONE senses that Hunter has tenuous control of his experiment; time is a tricky business. When he makes mistakes, however, he proceeds to rectify them, right out in the open, so everybody can profit. Anastasia discovers her brother's camera and turns to him with a slight smile. (She acts so well, that girl, always with nuance, the slightest gestures. In that smile there is scorn and sympathy and indifference.) Embarrassed, Twelvetrees slaps her, an act usually good for some kind of effect. But we are looking through a marijuana camera. Anastasia's face snaps around, fixes directly on the lens, holding the camera--as if to say, wait, think before you react to this scene, in my world all these quick moves are phony. The camera waits. In the background Twelvetrees' angry face sags, crumbles, dribbles into blankness. His hand goes awkwardly to his mouth.
Another example: Twelvetrees is taking pictures of that little girl. Suddenly her father (Chapman) appears behind her. Confrontation between angry brother (the camera is his avenger) and lover-father arrived just in time to shield his little girl. We expect sparks. But Hunter bores into Chapman's belligerent face, the frozen glance breaks, cheeks and lips contort, shiver in embarrassment. The patient camera has cut into the soft ludicrous center of his tough resolve.
Through this peculiar twisting of sight and time, cuts sound--dialogue and music--clear, straight-forward. But sound too serves the ambiance of Dream which Desire seeks to recreate. The six bits of dialogue don't untangle the plot or deepen the characters. After all, the vocabulary of the subconscious does not use any known alphabet, although one suspects that music is our best approximation. No, this dialogue merely suggests the too easily forgotten gap between what a person says and what he is. Nothing Anastasia could say would do credit to her presence; thankfully, she says nothing. She is addressed once, but the response comes from a brazen woman with several millions and the freedom of socialites in her honey-raucous voice. Clearly the voice does not belong to Anastasia. Hunter may be suggesting a parallel between Hip and High Society (the connections are not so slim, Jim, but there is no space to make them here), or perhaps some platinum vein in Anastasia's mind.
THE dialogue never occurs precisely where it should, that is, when the conversation is actually taking place on the screen. In general, filmed conversations are visually boring. A non-synchronized soundtrack permits Hunter to set his camera on exciting prospects -- Twelvetrees loping down the street toward Blaine--as the dialogue runs. (Unfortunately he didn't shoot the junkyard encounter between the two in the same way; we must suffer through a long silent discussion.) Enough of mechanics, however. The unsynchronized dialogue adds to Dream. Words when we don't expect them, silence when we do--it slips another strange note into Desire's distortion.
The Streetchoir lyrics and instrumentals could conceivably serve as an andidote to the dream effects Hunter has created with his camera. The scenes themselves contain very little physical action; the music provides a sense of internal movement. The lack of dialogue and the actors' ambivalent expressions are deliberately difficult to interpret; the music cuts in to establish a definite mood. It's good music, hard rock, a soupcon of jazz, a settling of the blues, harmonia from soul to ironic smaltz. It's good music, scene-stealing music, and that's the danger. Hunter runs the risk of losing his movie to the music, of letting the Streetchoir produce the effects. Not only does he escape the danger, he uses the music--not its tone so much as its existence--to propel Desire further into Romance.
Anastasia is walking down the street. Short bright shift, legs, thighs, a swing and a rhythm to her step. Men turn after her. Cars slide between her and the camera. Even without the music it would be fascinating. With the brazen beat and the salacious lyrics, it becomes a walk on the wild side, a joy to see. You sit there, watching the girl, all the motion and color, in the groove with the sound. Stop the music! No more orange electronic notes to swell the picture. No more foot-tapping in the aisles. But the camera lingers on that suddenly shoddy Roxbury street. Absolute silence now. And you've been had. You were riding high, and it was a trick, an illusion. The silence tears rudely into your mood. In Desire it happens again and again, this abrupt transition into absolute silence. The music sets a mood; the silence destroys us. That uneven motion is Hunter's reprimand, his way of telling us that this movie means to keep us off-balance.
It is all part of the plan. Remember the epigraph: the never spoken words which define our souls. Desire attempts to chart Anastasia Vote's soul, and it must push us into mystery. Avoiding blatant tricks which we can reject as technological fantasy, Hunter mixes a plot to demolish the narrative and its constriction of imagination. He establishes several movements of time to confound each other and us. He builds and then destroys emotions so that just one impression lingers--the silence and unfathomable expression of that strange girl. Who is she? What is the news of this exploration into Romance, into the darkness (or is it sharp light) where we hope to find Anastasia Vote? I can't tell you. The answer comes too softly.
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