Jan 20, 2015

White Madness

When I think about it, there seems to be very few truly decent, distinct, and memorable films about complex relationships between mothers and sons, especially in terms of works depicting troubled relationships between a matriarch and her male progeny. While I found Russian Aleksandr Sokurov’s Mother and Son (1997) relatively touching in its own Slavic overly spiritual way, I also found it a tad bit too ‘sentimental’ for my tastes. Indeed, I like my films to be a little bit darker and more complicated, hence my appreciation of Teutonic dandy auteur Werner Schroeter’s The Rose King (1986) aka Der Rosenkönig, but the problem with that film is that it is about a mother that is jealous of her sod son’s male lover/sex slave, which is certainly not something I can relate to. Luckily, I recently discovered the truly criminally neglected work De witte waan (1984) aka White Madness directed by Dutch auteur Adriaan Ditvoorst (Flanagan, Paranoia), which is a film I can better relate to as a particularly perturbing yet rather romantic piece of culturally cynical celluloid of the unwaveringly decadent sort about a misanthropic junky nihilist who lives completely off the grid in a large abandoned factory building and has been estranged from his mother from over a decade, only to reunite with his melancholy mommy after she is hit by a car and badly paralyzed. While I have never shot junk in my arm and it has not been a decade since I last saw my mother, I can certainly relate to the film’s less than Oedipal but certainly obscene essence and foreboding tone in a somewhat inexplicable way. Lauded by such heavyweight European arthouse filmmakers as Jean-Luc Godard, Bernardo Bertolucci and Pier Paolo Pasolini for his 22-minute experimental directorial debut Ik kom wat later naar Madra (1965) aka That Way to Madra as the greatest talent to emerge from the Netherlands during the mid-1960s, Ditvoorst was an auteur purist who believed that film was a mixture of poetry and painting and never had an interest in appeasing the tastes of the masses, hence why virtually all of his works were commercial failures, including White Madness, which was the last film the diehard avant-gardist directed before committing suicide at the premature age of 47 in late 1987 by walking into the Scheldt river near his childhood hometown of Bergen op Zoom. Well over a decade before his suicide, the filmmaker began drastically deteriorating and living the life of a cynical misanthropic hermit after his most conventional and mainstream-oriented work, the crime-drama Flanagan (1975) based on the novel of the same name by popular Dutch novelist Tim Krabbé (The Vanishing), also turned out to be a commercial flop despite it being the director's first (and ultimately last) serious attempt at appealing to the masses. Unemployed and living as a drug-addled alcoholic recluse in an attic near Vondelpark in Amsterdam, Ditvoorst hated daylight, only came outside during the night to go to his favor bar, and by the early-1980s began hanging out and doing drugs with socially alienated hobos, punks, and skinheads who would ultimately inspire his swansong and magnum opus White Madness, which was also a flop (only attracting about 1860s filmgoers at theaters) and baffled both viewers and critics alike upon its released, though it is now considered an unrivaled masterpiece of sorts of Dutch cinema. Like Day of the Idiots (1981) era Werner Schroeter meets the satiric dark proto-surrealism of Comte de Lautréamont (whose poetic novel Les Chants de Maldoror aka The Songs of Maldoror is featured prominently in Ditvoorst's film) meets a decidedly Dutch take on ‘magical realism,’ Ditvoorst’s masterpiece of moribund melancholia is simultaneously a poetic suicide letter, reluctant nod to maternity and the eternal feminine, and transcendental tribute to personal freedom and the perennial solace of death. 

 Like virtually all the protagonists of Ditvoorst’s films, Lazlo (Thom Hoffman of Paul Verhoeven’s The 4th Man (1983) and Rudolf van den Berg’s De avonden (1989)) is an antisocial loner who abhors all forms of authority and rejects society in its entirety, as a solemn and sullen mensch who incessantly paints murals of strikingly stoic eagles, which symbolize freedom to him. The aristocratic junky son of an eccentric ex-actress (veteran Belgian actress Pim Lambeau) who lives in a similarly reclusive life surrounded by books and debris, Lazlo lives in an abandoned ruined factory that is symbolically named “De Adelaar” (aka The Eagle”) that he shares with an eccentric old man known simply as ‘Portier’ (Hans Croiset of Ditvoorst’s Flanagan, who is not coincidentally the brother of the actor that plays Lazlo’s much hated father) who has been working on an invention for four decades that he hopes will “bring forth a sound that will destroy the echo of the Big Bang with a deviant speed” and thus bring forth eternal silence as a result of the destruction of the entire world. Aside from Portier, Lazlo’s only other friends are a dope-dealing Chinaman named Fuji (Joe Hennes) and his much taller white girlfriend Lili (Hilde Van Mieghem of Steven Soderbergh’s Kafka (1991)) who live on a rusty old battleship.  Lazlo rarely talks, but when he does it is usually in a no bullshit fashion that completely shies away from any verbal frivolousness (which can also be said of Ditvoorst's film, which is almost a purely visual experience, as a work that only has about 280 lines of dialogue).  With his friend Fuji, Lazlo also likes talking about dreams while the two are both high on heroin and whatever other narcotics they have lying around.  Lazlo has not seen his mother in twelve years and has nil desire to do so, but a tragic event will change that and plunge the antihero out of his hermetic glacial void and into an uncomfortable state of vulnerability where he must confront his repressed feeling as a born prodigal son who does not want to accept the fact that he loves his mother dearly. 

 Lazlo’s mother cannot let a single minute go by without thinking or dreaming about her estranged son and what might become of him. Indeed, during the beginning of White Madness, she suffers a nightmarish hallucination after seeing TV footage of a baby seal being clubbed to death and then imagining the furry white pup is actually her son. Mother’s only source of solace is the music of Mozart and her favorite play The Cherry Orchard (notably, director Ditvoorst planned to cinematically adapt the play, but his screenplay was rejected, so he directed White Darkness instead) by Anton Chekhov, who she states of, “That Chekhov…he knew about the ladies.” Mother also has a tendency to talk to furniture, including chairs and cabinets, when she is not pretending to drink coffee spiked with liquor with her son. Fed up with life and quite literally dying to get her son’s attention, Mother decides to throw herself in front a car and suffers a variety of injuries and afflictions as a result, including paralyzed legs and random seizures. After her accident, Mother sends her half-sister Tante (Louise Ruys of Dick Maas’ Amsterdamned (1988)) by Lazlo’s squat to tell him about the bad news, but the protagonist responds rather rudely by throwing a carton of strawberry milk at her and walking away without saying a single word. Ultimately, Tante decides to track down Lazlo’s prostitute friend Jasja (Guusje van Tilborgh), who more or less resembles a younger version of the antihero’s mother, as she is convinced that the whore will be able to help. When Jasja goes by Lazlo’s pad to attempt to talk some sense into him regarding comforting his hospitalized mother, he responds by stating, “My mother…She is a lifeless garden…a fossil from the Balkan.” When Jasja states “your mother is suffering,” Lazlo responds in a sadistically sarcastic fashion by stating “finally.” When Jasja states regarding his mother “you love her,” Lazlo cannot deny it and finally agrees to accompany the prostitute to the hospital. While taking a taxi ride to the hospital, the driver abruptly pulls over and attempts to kick Lazlo and Jasja out of the cab after the former refuses to stop smoking in his car. When Lazlo gets out of the car, he drops the cash on the ground and steals the cab while the taxi-driver is scrambling to pick-up the money. Jasja finds the whole ordeal highly hilarious, but Lazlo doesn’t and throws the hooker out of the cab when she laughs too loudly. Indeed, Lazlo cannot stand anyone, including hot carpet-munching hookers he used to fuck. 

 When Lazlo gets to the hospital, he finds his mother bedridden, covered in bandages and casts, and only semi-conscious yet she still manages to still give her son the warmest and most loving of smiles. After the mother gently hands her son an envelope with his name on it in a discreet and almost conspiratorial manner, Tante destroys the beautiful moment by barging into the hospital room and unleashing a storm of accusatory verbal swill, so Lazlo grabs her and throws her out by force, thus causing her to land on an injured man on a stretcher. After seeing mommy dearest for the first time in twelve years, Lazlo goes by Fuji’s place to buy a month’s supply of heroin but the Chinaman does not have that much dope to spare so the antihero must meet with a suavely dressed bartender who is their main supplier. Just before Lazlo arrives for the drug deal, a lard ass junky (played by Dutch auteur Theo van Gogh in a highly memorable and mirthful role) that is fiending for a fix kills the bartender by stabbing him in the gut with a knife after the dealer refuses to sell him so dope. When Lazlo finds the murdered man, he only seems concerned about whether or not he will get his drugs. After digging through the dead dealer’s pockets for cash and dope, Lazlo feels sympathy for the murderous fat junky and places a large bag of dope into his mouth. In fact, Lazlo subsequently has an epiphany and decides to give the rest of the drugs to Fuji as he plans to quit drugs altogether, stating regarding the junky lifestyle, “It’s the same everywhere…A sad bunch of pathetic losers.” Of course, Lazlo really wants to get clean because he plans to live with his mother and wants to have a literally and figuratively clean start with her. After telling Portier that he will be spending the next couple weeks in the top story of the factory and that he does not want to see anyone during that time, Lazlo suffers the lonely metaphysical hell of drug withdrawal and, in turn, incessant diarrhea. 

 When Lazlo reaches equilibrium and emerges from drug withdrawal, he says farewell to Portier, who remarks “you’re leaving. I can hardly believe it,” and makes his way to mommy’s manor, but not before taking a shower at a clinic where an old woman voyeuristic gazes at his unclad body and briefly encountering the bloody feeble corpse of his childhood self. When Lazlo finally arrives at his mother’s dilapidated mansion, he finds himself literally standing in debris, dust, and shambles of his childhood. Indeed, the large family manor is mostly in ruins and art supplies, various types of taxidermied and decayed animals (especially snakes and iguanas, but also birds), and mountains of books are lying all over the thoroughly cluttered house. While waiting for his mother to arrive home from the hospital, Lazlo hears ghosts from his childhood, including that of his abusive deceased father, who is rarely mentioned in the film but whose ominous presence is deeply felt. When Mother finally arrives, she is wheeled into the house in a wheelchair by her half-sister Tante and she happily remarks “Hello Boy, I’m glad you’re here” after Lazlo warmly greets her in a romantic fashion with a single red rose. Before long, Lazlo and Mother decide to symbolically throw all of their favorite possessions out of a window, including the latter’s favorite play The Cherry Orchard, the telephone, and about a hundred or so books, though the protagonist spends a fairly long time brooding over de Lautréamont’s Les Chants de Maldoror aka The Songs of Maldoror in between working on a new eagle mural before deciding to rid himself of his worldly material possessions. Unfortunately, Lazlo also soon begins using various types of drugs again, including weed (which he sits next to his lavish illustrated copy of Les Chants de Maldoror) and angel dust. Mother also reminds Lazlo about how his father used to regularly say hateful things to him like “Junior, out of my way…You smell like chicken shit” and “one day, I’ll beat the light out of your eyes.” At one point, Lazlo suffers a hallucination where his father forces him to blind his own eyes with cherries (which is surely reference to The Cherry Orchard) while his mother suffers a surreal seizure while dressed like a cheap hooker. Indeed, it soon becomes quite apparent why Lazlo decided to stay away from his childhood home for twelve years, as the familiarity of the family manor throws the protagonist into an existential pandemonium where repressed memories mutate into living and highly lucid nightmares. 

 After getting in a petty argument with his prideful progenitor, Lazlo storms out of the manor while his mother yells, “Runaway…That’s what you always do.” Unfortunately, Lazlo soon discovers that virtually all of his friends are dead and thus he has nothing left to go back to. Indeed, on top of Fuji overdosing on heroin, Lazlo discovers the snail-covered corpse of Portier at the factory. Next to the Portier’s corpse is a sign telling Lazlo to tryout the dead man’s big experiment—the world-destroying sound machine that is supposed to be louder than the Big Bang—but when the protagonist turns the ambitious invention on, it malfunctions because a rat has eaten through one of the electrical wires. Needless to say, loser’s loser Lazlo realizes that all is lost and predictably goes back to mommy, who he is distressed to find lying unconscious at the bottom of the manor stairs. That night, Lazlo imagines himself strangling to death the man that ran over his mother—a virtual doppelgänger of the protagonist's father (symbolically played by Hans Croiset, who also played Portier and is the brother of the actor that played Lazlo’s father)—while the chap pleads, “Prince, there goes your King. Stop dreaming, Junior.” Although dead, Portier also comes by the manor and informs Lazlo, who is adamant about not letting his undead friend in his house, that his mother’s accident was “The Big Bang.” After buying some pills from an Arab drug dealer and symbolically destroying his latest eagle mural by tossing a bucket of blood red paint on it, Lazlo is prepared to carry out his Mother’s wishes in regard to her upcoming birthday. Indeed, on the day of his Mother’s birthday, Lazlo carries her to a lavish room full of splendid pageantry, including 3,000 candles and roses, that resembles a high-camp funeral procession à la Daniel Schmid's La Paloma (1974). After slow dancing with his mother, Lazlo gently lays her on a bed, pours a glass of champagne for her and himself, and puts two of the four pulls that he bought from the Arab dope dealer in her mouth with a truly deadly kiss. As it turns out, the letter that Mother handed Lazlo at the hospital towards the beginning of the film included specific instructions for a mother-son suicide pact reading, “Champagne and Mozart on my birthday. I love you too much. Your mother.” In the end, mother and son die beside one another in bed. 

 Notably, before he killed himself in late 1987 by taking pills just like those taken by the antihero of White Madness and walking into the waters of the Scheldt, Adriaan Ditvoorst had not spoken to his mother or family members in two decades. Like the Portier character of his film who attempted to build a machine louder than the Big Bang that would ultimately destroy all sound and ultimately the world, Ditvoorst was apparently looking for a sort of perennial silence as reflected in the suicide letter he mailed out his family members and friends reading: “When you read this, I will have entrusted my body to the waves. All is silence. There is nothing else.” Notably, a half a decade after Ditvoorst entrusted his body to the waves, White Madness star Thom Hoffman directed the quasi-avant-garde documentary De domeinen Ditvoorst (1992) aka The Ditvoorst Domains about the filmmaker and his rather troubled life as an uncompromising avant-garde auteur purist and born-anarchist who spent his entire life at odds with both the Dutch film world and society in general. The doc is highly insightful in that it makes it perfectly clear that White Madness was Ditvoorst’s final testament and the culmination of his life’s work and singularly cynical and pessimistic weltanschauung. Indeed, while Ditvoorst apparently opted to commit suicide partly because he could not find funding for his films, it is hard to imagine that the auteur would have been able to top his final work, which practically bleeds the director’s hopelessly forlorn soul and is certainly the crowning achievement and swansong of an artist that had decided to throw in the towel on life. Indeed, next to Ditvoorst, fellow ‘starving artist’ and world famous Dutch post-impressionist painter Vincent van Gogh (whose great-grandnephew Theo van Gogh incidentally appears in White Madness as a somnambulist-like junky) almost seems like a happy-go-lucky sort of guy. In my less than humble opinion, Ditvoorst is one of the few true artist heirs to van Gogh, just as Fassbinder once described his friend Werner Schroeter as a sort of heir to Comte de Lautréamont, albeit of the cinematic as opposed to literary realm. As once-controversial Dutch filmmaker Wim Verstappen (Blue Movie) remarks in The Ditvoorst Domains regarding Ditvoorst and the tragic failure of his singular filmmaking career: “If you do something well in Holland, you don’t get any credit.” Of course, it is hard to imagine that Ditvoorst would not commit suicide after watching a film as malignantly melancholy and idiosyncratically and elegantly morbid as White Madness.  With the rather shocking recent suicide of a rather kind, caring, and seemingly always happy family friend who did not seem the least bit suicidal, I can only assume that a person that was so overtly miserable and forlorn as Ditvoorst was dying to die, with filmmaking being the only thing that gave him a reason to live, hence his remarks regarind White Madness: “Well, if things go wrong, I’ll be gone. I hate quarreling and nagging…But I never felt as happy with a film before. I feel like someone climbing a descending fire ladder…who keeps climbing, but never reaches the fire.”  One can only hope that with his suicide, Ditvoorst was finally able to reach the fire.

-Ty E

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