If Beasticon wasn’t quite grotesque enough, head to Spectacle Theater in Williamsburg this Sunday for a screening of what has to be one of the eeriest, most distinctive films this side of Eraserhead.
Shot in a former paint factory in Greenpoint, Go Down Death was written and directed by one of Spectacle’s programmers, Aaron Schimberg, and produced and edited by his fellow curator (and wife) Vanessa McDonnell, whose John’s of 12th Street documentary recently premiered there. Both live near the Williamsburg-Greenpoint border.
The film, described by Schimberg as “a collection of mysteries to be contemplated,” purports to be an adaptation of the works of fictitious folklorist Jonathan Mallory Sinus. He must’ve spent a lot of time posted up at brothels, since a good deal of the action (if anything in this dreamy melange of vignettes can be called action) occurs within a ramshackle cathouse. The richly textured stage sets, throwback costuming (wire-frame glasses, pageboy caps, lacy blouses) and grainy, black-and-white cinematography make clear that the film is set sometime in the past, but despite the card playing and guitar strumming, this is no rip-roarin’ recreation of Storyville.
In fact, it’s uncertain when or where Go Down Death takes place. Certain scenes evoke the Dust Bowl photos of Walker Evans or Dorothea Lange. A pair of soldiers who might just be the film’s Vladimir and Estragon wander through some birch woods in what seem to be World War I helmets, but then an officer — looking lost in every sense of the word — appears in something resembling Civil War garb. Or maybe we’re looking at the backwoods counterpart to Jim Jarmusch’s urban dreamscapes (as with some of Jarmusch’s work, the film was shot on Super 16mm). After all, the characters continuously speak of “the city” in alternately wondrous and disparaging terms (“it was patronizing,” says one; “they have parties there that go on for generations,” marvels another).
With its kaleidoscope of characters, its veneer of melancholy, and its turgid dialogue (“ghosts haunt me but I’ll haunt no one,” says one character, and then later another), there are whiffs of Faulkner here, but you can’t call this Southern Gothic, since most of the actors were found on the streets of New York. The bordello’s guitarist is played by subway musician Ricardo Molfa; the man who plays a doctor is actually Schimberg’s landlord, and the director’s psychoanalyst is also among the dozens of cast members. According to the production notes, filming was nearly halted when “an EPA inspector from the nearby Superfund site entered the factory and saw a pile of antique drums full of 80-year-old paint (or other miscellaneous chemicals) propped precariously against the wall. He threatened to padlock the warehouse but settled for being an extra in the film.”
Schimberg’s fixation on sickness and deformity — perhaps appropriate, given the toxic shooting location — puts him in the company of Diane Arbus and Alejandro Jodorowsky. In an early scene, a handsome amputee tells a bare-breasted prostitute that he’s happy to be “free from the tyranny of two legs”; later, a doctor who’s equal parts mentor and huckster tells a dirt-smudged, doe-eyed child gravedigger (the closest thing the film has to a protagonist) that he’s “free from the tyranny” of the boss who has worked him nearly to death.
When they aren’t tortured by physical maladies, the denizens of Go Down Death are haunted by their memories, or lack thereof. “Do you ever think about the past?” asks the wistful old man sitting naked and pot-bellied on the edge of the bed. “Is that normal? healthy? such vivid memories, smells of my youth, voices of the dead.” And yet this john can’t remember whether he was married to the melancholy woman he’s just had sex with, or her “genuinely jolly” twin sister.That conversation is just one of several between self-centered men and passive, quietly suffering women who can never quite see eye to eye — quite literally, in the case of the woman who suddenly goes blind in one of the film’s many unexplained episodes. Throughout, explosions ring out, and we wonder whether they have something to do with the war, or whether they’re something still more ominous. In the end, it seems they might be rifts in time or perhaps the steady drumbeat of progress. At some point, after a jarringly modern ad for “the city” (“we show no pity for the past; reinvent yourself, reload; we do it right; be cityfolk; do it; the city; don’t waste your life”), the film throws us into a present-day dinner party in which some young yuppies debate whether it’s worth mourning a candy store that’s closing on Grand Street.
“The future is inevitable, the past is ephemeral,” opines one diner; “while you’re walking a mile, shopping at Meacham’s in your wooden clogs, you better hope you don’t get gangrene or they’ll have to amputate without anesthesia,” snorts another.
It’s unclear if the Meacham’s being discussed here is the same Meacham’s that was mentioned earlier on. Go Down Death is one of those films that benefits from multiple viewings. Which is why it’s a good thing that it’s playing (as part of the Best of Spectacle 2014 series) both Sunday, Dec. 14 at 7:30pm and Friday, Dec. 19 at 10pm. Schimberg says the film came to him “partly from a fever-dream I had at NYU hospital while hopped up on morphine after a serious medical procedure,” so don’t feel obligated to watch it sober.