Jan 19, 2014

Willow Springs

If German New Cinema dandy Werner Schroeter (Eika Katappa, Palermo oder Wolfsburg) ever came close to making a horror film, albeit with thriller and even western genre conventions, it is most certainly Willow Springs (1973), a work that also has the distinction of being the only film the director shot entirely in the United States. Originally intending to come to the U.S. to do a documentary on a structural analysis of Andy Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe prints with a ten-page script treatment he had written, Schroeter wisely decided to ditch the doc and create the “cheapest possible story,” or as the auteur stated himself in a 2008 interview: “It was going to be called THE DREAM OF MARILYN MONROE. But instead of pictures of Warhol’s work, I came back with this thriller, this western. They were floored. Nobody else has ever done that. And then they called the head of programming, Viehover, because the producers were totally frantic. He watched it and then he said, ‘Thank you, Mr. Schroeter, for this extraordinary film.’ I said, “I can imagine.” A film like that for 80,000 marks? I mean, come on!” With a mere 80,000 marks given to him by the West German television channel ZDF that was intended for the doc, Schroeter not only managed to fund the film, but the traveling and living expenses for himself and his diva stars Magdalena Montezuma, Christine Kaufmann and Ila von Hasperg while living in Los Angeles during the two week period that it took him to direct Willow Springs. Aside from making the film, Schroeter also came to Hollywood so that his friend Christine Kaufmann could get back her children that her drug-addled ex-husband, Jewish-American star Tony Curtis (father of Jamie Lee Curtis), had apparently kidnapped from her. 

 Indeed, while it would be interesting to see what Schroeter thought of weirdo Warhol’s dilettante prints, I am glad he opted for directing what is easily one of his darkest and most bizarrely penetrating films and a work Fassbinder apparently described as “an absolute work of art.” A meditation on American feminism a decade after Marilyn Monroe’s death, as well as a response to the infamous Manson Family murders, Willow Springs takes its name from the small ghost town in the Mojave desert where the film was shot. The unconventionally tragic celluloid tale of an ambiguously Sapphic death cult leader played by Schroeter’s marvelously macabre and perennially melancholy muse Magdalena Montezuma who has two meek followers who help her lure men to their dilapidated home and brutally kill them as a sort of unhinged and pseudo-empowering form of feminazi blood sacrifice, Willow Springs is a hallucinatory and haunting film about three haunted women that discover the matriarchy can be much more macabre than the patriarchy. A sort of cine-magic marriage between the freaky female solidarity of Ingmar Bergman’s Persona (1966) and Robert Altman’s 3 Women (1977), the romantic acid-washed desert nihilism of Roland Klick’s Deadlock (1970), the high-camp lesbian slumber party melancholy of The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972), the mystical authoritarian lesbianism of Lemora: A Child's Tale of the Supernatural (1973), and the sunny California Oedipal problems of Curtis Harrington’s The Killing Kind (1973), Willow Springs is nothing short of a lost masterpiece (apparently, the film has not been screened since 1973 when it was televised by ZDF in 1973) and thankfully the fine folks at Edition Filmmuseum have recently went to the trouble of restoring and releasing it on DVD.  Indeed, you will not find a better anti-feminist feminist Manson-esque psychosexual western-horror-thriller than Willow Springs.

 At the beginning of Willow Springs, one is given a glaring hint as to the source of lunatic lesbo-feminist cult leader Magdalena’s (Magdalena Montezuma) murderous misandry and perturbing psychosis. As depicted in the first scene, Magdalena was brutally attacked and strangled by a swarthy Hells Angels-esque biker. Flash forward five years later, Magda is now a deranged dyke charlatan cunt and sole leader of the nefarious North Star Dhruva cult who derives internal strength from nonsensically killing any man that has the misfortune of passing by her home/bar in the desert and she uses two broken babes to help carry out her dirty deeds. As her underling Christine (Christine Kaufmann) states regarding her rationale for joining the cult, “I prefer to surrender responsibility for my life to Magdalena, because she loves pain and the beauty of her face is the beauty of pain. For the last five years, ever since I’ve been here, I no longer have any memories. I no longer have any memories. My life has only begun again since I came here.” As Christine also states, “I have never loved anyone save for my child that died inside me before it was born. Since then, I know that life is like a wave on which you drift always being careful not to drown, only to die in the end after all,” thus demonstrating her disillusionment with life, destroyed personality, incapacity for love and affection, and need to be led in life by someone else. The only other member of the killer carpet-muncher cult is the childlike dame Ila (Ila von Hasperg), who lives in a fantasy world that involves dressing like Marilyn Monroe and befriending kitty cats, which rather annoys Magdalena. In between being served rum and coke by sensual slaves and maliciously murdering men, Magdalena practices Sapphic esoteric rites and preaches to Christine and Ila at her dimly lit bar, where she declares like a true spiritually degenerate and schizophrenic megalomaniac: “I greet you, North Star. I greet you, cry of distant jackal. I greet you, loneliness of ours. Oh, my companions, preserve the purity of your hands that deny lascivious temptation. You possess the purity of those who spill the blood of others. The blood of the people we have killed is our protection. You will never be afraid again. I am the force that led you here. I am helping you. I love you more than I love myself.” At mad Magda’s demand, Christine and Ila repeat the chant: “She is the force through which we live… She loves us more than she loves herself… She is the force through which we breathe.”  Rather unfortunately for her, pseudo-messiah Magdalena is unable to provide her girls with the sort of sexual satisfaction that a virile ex-con like Charles Manson was able to glamor gals with.

Of course, trouble arrives in paradise when a young and seemingly autistic momma’s boy of the diary-writing and Hawaiian-born sort named “Son” aka “Lord Invader” (Michael O'Daniels) arrives at the North Star Dhruva compound after learning that his beloved mommy (also played by Magdalena Montezuma who in this role gives a Marlene Dietrich-esque performance) was turned down from the clit-hopper cult by Magdalena. While Lord Invader knows all too well that the women of the cult worship murdering men and make a living stealing said murdered men's property, he displays no inkling of fear when facing the ferocious females of North Star Dhruva and they ultimately seem to respect him for that very reason. To Magdalena’s dykey dismay, both Christine and Ila take an instant lecherous liking to the strange young man. Upon meeting Lord Invader, Ila falls in love at first sight and states, “You must have been born on Christmas eve” as if he is the second coming of Christ. On top of everything else, Lord Invader challenges Magdalena’s authority and Weltanschauung by stating, “but Magdalena, you have to have a reason to kill someone,” to which the queen bitch replies, “if you don’t get what I’m saying, shut up!” as if the fact he has a penis makes him incapable of understanding the cult leader's murderously matriarchal megalomania.  Always lurking around the house and voyeuristically spying on her followers through outside windows, Magdalena loses her cool after walking in on Lord Invader and Ila making passionate love in a manner that she, as a cock-less wench, never could. In one of the especially telling and symbolic scenes, Magdalena strokes her pistol revolver as if it were a cock, thus demonstrating she uses the weapon as a substitute phallus. When Ila attempts to leave with Lord Invader, Magdalena jealously shoots both of the lovers to death out of sexual frustration. With her authority compromised and beloved follower Ila dead, Magdalena acts in classically hysterical female fashion and shoots and kills Christine as well, thus bringing a quick and tragic end to the short-lived, but nonetheless iconic and infamous, North Star Dhruva cult. Interestingly, during Willow Springs, Magdalena prophetically promises her two girls that, “When you are dead, I will be the one to care for you, to carry your bodies to their graves.“ Indeed, when it came down to it, Magdalena preferred having both Christine and Ila dead rather than happy and in love with a man as a feminist extremist with a pathological case of penis envy. 

 Undoubtedly one of auteur Werner Schroeter’s most accessible and aesthetically delectable works, Willow Springs is haunting high-camp celluloid Americana of the decidedly decadent Teutonic sort. Featuring music ranging from Camille Saint-Saëns and Charles Gounod to Creedence Clearwater Revival and the Doobie Brothers, Willow Springs is certainly a savory celluloid slice of the signature ‘Kulturscheisse’ (“culture shit”) pioneered by Schroeter as a strikingly seamless hodgepodge of high and low kultur as a low-budget work that brings cultivation to a mostly cultureless nation. Made a couple years after the Manson Family murders, Schroeter’s film depicts a wayward world where the utopian dreams of the counter-culture generation have deleteriously degenerated into absolutely abhorrent authoritarian gynocentrism of the mensch-exterminating sort. Indeed, I am sure Andy Warhol would have been rather disturbed by Willow Springs as the film seems like an aberrantly allegorical Texas Chain Saw Massacre-esque take on the insane radical lily-licker ideas expressed in the pop-con-artist’s failed assassin Valerie Solanas' SCUM Manifesto. An apocalyptic chamber piece from fecund-free post-Monroe/post-Manson pandemonium featuring Miss Montezuma sporting a glittery Grim Reaper-like cloak, Willow Springs is a virtual celluloid epitaph of excess for American feminism as a work that portrays the fairer sex as no more free nor happy under a matriarchal society, but just the opposite. Indeed, like Schroeter’s mainstream effort Malina (1991)—a work based on Austrian feminist hero Ingeborg Bachmann's 1971 novel of the same—Willow Springs is a film that is not likely to please feminist idealists as it portrays a ‘woman-ruled’ society as a decidedly debasing dystopian wasteland where the typical woman is even more subservient and less individualistic than under National Socialist rule, albeit minus the god-given rights of vaginal penetration and sexual reproduction. A sort of equally cynical companion piece to Fassbinder’s equally eerie and iconoclastic video film Bremer Freiheit: Frau Geesche Gottfried - Ein bürgerliches Trauerspiel (1972), Willow Springs wallows in the rotting corpse that is women’s lib and ironically does it in an ominous operatic style that demonstrates how beauteous deadly women can be. 

-Ty E

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