Jul 28, 2016

It's Me (1976)

Thanks to the thoughtful gratitude of a Dutch comrade and SS reader, I was finally able to wallow in the strangely entrancing pulchritude of the first feature-length film of one of my favorite filmmakers. Indeed, It's Me (1976) directed by the great Dutch renaissance man Frans Zwartjes (Visual Training, Behind Your Walls) is, not unlike most of the auteur’s films, an innately idiosyncratic piece of avant-garde cinema where the grotesque somehow becomes strikingly gorgeous. Unlike many of the director’s better known films like Anamnesis (1969) and Living (1971) where the characters oftentimes resemble reanimated corpses and deathrock fans and the settings resemble some unspeakable sort of post-Christian pandemonium, the film is somewhat documentary-like in its essence and its clearly set in a contemporary setting, though the emotions and behavior expressed by the female lead are unequivocally grotesque and oftentimes unnerving. A non-narrative one-woman show starring Dutch diva Willeke van Ammelrooy—a woman with a long and eclectic career who has starred in everything from Swinging Amsterdam exploitation trash like Pim de la Parra’s Frank en Eva (1973) to fantastique arthouse classics like Harry Kümel’s De komst van Joachim Stiller (1976) aka The Arrival of Joachim Stiller to Oscar winning feminist insipidity like Marleen Gorris' singularly misandric carpet-muncher movie Antonia's Line (1995) to big budget Hollywood kitsch like the Sandra Bullock vehicle The Lake House (2006)—It’s Me is a sort of haunting yet strangely darkly humorous psychodramatic portrait of an insufferably self-absorbed actress whose vulgar displays of vanity and self-absorption is only transcended by her waning sanity and pathetic loneliness.  In short, the film depicts Western womankind at its worst.  

While I have yet to have the honor of seeing everyone of Zwartjes’ films, I can only assume that the 68-minute feature is the auteur’s most overtly Warholian effort as a lo-fi document packed with impassioned improvisation where the actress and her onscreen persona are completely blurred (thankfully, van Ammelrooy is classier than Warhol superstar Viva). In fact, Warhol is one of the few filmmakers that Zwartjes has described as an influence, or as he once stated in an interview with experimental queer filmmaker Mike Hoolboom, “What made a huge impression on me was the New American Cinema. The municipal theatre in Eindhoven presented a new American film program in the early 1960s. For the first time I was able to see films by Bruce Connor, by Markopolous, by that fatso… Peter Kubelka and by Andy Warhol. I thought: Jeesus Christ, what’s going on! In THE SHOPPER by Warhol, the camera is first pointed at the ceiling and then sinks downwards, but you can feel that it was not done by hand. The bolt at the top of the tripod wasn’t screwed tight. The camera sinks down by itself, splendidly. While the camera keeps on shooting, you can meanwhile hear someone talking. The protagonist just keeps on going. The crazy thing is that I started to be irritated by the film after a little while and I went out to get a drink. I must have gone back and forth ten times and each time that I opened the door to have another look, I thought, damn it all, it’s awfully good! Those screenings had a big influence on me.”   Of course, It's Me is not plagued by the sort of grating technical ineptness that is typical of a Warhol film.  Indeed, with a number of seemingly immaculately framed soft-focus shots, Zwartjes's film certainly has an ethereal essence despite its relatively humdrum one-room setting.

 Of course, what really makes Zwartjes’ films quite different from Warhol and his collaborator Paul Morrissey’s cinematic works is that it is a virtually immaculately directed and edited piece of unconsciously high class celluloid art that was created by a man that developed his own preternatural filmic language, but I guess one should not expect anything less from a filmmaker that once boldly stated, “My own motor system determined the film style. It never occurred to me to wonder: can this shot follow on after this one? If you start wondering about that you should be looking for another job straight away.” If one thing is for sure about It’s Me, it is that Zwartjes is absolutely obsessed with every inch of female lead van Ammelrooy's silky skinned body as the camera compliments the actress' every curve and crevice. Indeed, in no other films does a woman’s body, movements, and facial expressions tell the entire story, or lack thereof. Likewise, in no other film does a woman’s most pathetic and banal moments become so striking. A film that could be retitled ‘The Dejecting Domestic Habits of A Chainsmoking Dutch Dime Store Diva,’ It's Me—a film that focuses on the terribly dull daily habits of an actress that no one seems interested in hiring—takes a surprisingly aesthetically entrancing approach to demystifying the allure and intrigue of the sort of ravishing statuesque woman that most men would give one of their testicles to fuck. 

 Considering that it is the only one of his full-lengths films that has been officially released on DVD, I have always wrongly assumed that Pentimento (1979)—an avant-garde dystopian flick full of fine female flesh and East Asian scientist that perform curious experiments on said fine female flesh—was Zwartjes’ first feature.  Needless to say, it was a pleasant surprise for me to discover It's Me, which does for Willeke van Ammelrooy what Philippe Garrel's Les hautes solitudes (1974) did for tragic American actress Jean Seberg in terms of giving an oftentimes exploited and seemingly damaged diva the opportunity to flex her acting chops and express herself in a rather raw and vulnerable fashion that some people, especially those looking for a mere masturbation aid, would probably find to be a tad bit off-putting and even unsettling.  Indeed, while the film might feature a brief beaver shot or two, the heroine, who oftentimes seems like she is only the brink of a total mental breakdown, is hardly depicted in an erotic fashion, at least in any conventional sense (notably, van Ammelrooy first gained fame for her debut role as the eponymous wanton woman in Fons Rademakers' classic Stijn Streuvels adaptation Mira (1971)).

While Zwartjes was apparently disappointed with the results of his first feature, leading lady van Ammelrooy would regard it as one of the greatest artistic successes of her rather long and eclectic acting career despite the fact that she portrays a less than likeable lady of the considerably loony sort. Aside from Zwartjes himself, Mat van Hensbergen, who also shot Adriaan Ditvoorst’s criminally underrated epic satire De mantel der Liefde (1978) aka The Mantle of Love and would later curiously act as a camera operator on Hollywood trash like Cheech and Chong: Still Smokin' (1983), acted as the film's cinematographer. A bizarrely captivating cinematic works where Zwartjes seems to have traded in the visually grotesque of his earlier films for the emotionally grotesque as personified by a pretty vapid beauty that seems to suffer from a strangely neurotic form of self-worship, It’s Me might be about only one woman but it ultimately works as a subtle critique of modern Occidental women in general as van Ammelrooy's character suffers from an exaggerated form of the sort of insufferable psychosis that is all too prevalent among members of the so-called fairer sex in Hollywoodized post-WWII Europe where a sort of wholly corrosive and vulgar Coca-Cola pseudo-culture reigns. Indeed, incessantly unconsciously brainwashing herself with magazines featuring female nudes that she constantly compares herself with, the nameless the heroine—an actress that has turned her apartment into a virtual shrine and fantasy realm of her own making—is a fully willing victim of female tabloid trash and seems to live solely to triumph over and/or win the respect of other women, or so the viewer can only assume by her bizarre behavior. 

 As Jean-Luc Godard attempted to communicate in both overt and covert ways in his semi-autobiographical eight feature Une femme mariée (1964) aka A Married Woman in regard to the sort of metaphysical affliction that plagues many modern Western women (notably, the filmmaker was convinced that his then-wife Anna Karina was incapable of loving him due to being debased by pop culture), the contemporary European female is incapable of true love and monogamy because she has brainwashed by magazines and cultural trends that have informed her that the ideal 'liberated' woman is a self-worshiping and self-glorifying hedonistic whore of the culturally retarded sort who is only interested in her own quest for pleasure and shallow reputation among other vainglorious women that live to model their largely worthless lives after the fantasy worlds created by the homo advertisers of Madison Avenue.  Notably, in regard to a montage from his film featuring an assortment of advertisements juxtaposed with a song sung by Sylvie Vartan, Godard stated, “If I have show . . . the place that magazine advertisements occupy in the life of this woman, it’s because certain forms of advertising are going so far as to become people’s own thoughts. The models that are proposed to people are becoming identical with the people themselves. Even their sex life is not their own, it’s already displayed on the walls. People’s existence is no more than the reflection of what they see, their freedom is a prefabricated thought.”

Undoubtedly, the heroine in Zwartjes’ film is the unintentionally humorous extreme in regard to the dark and depressing phenomenon that Godard describes, as her entire existence seems predicated on something she saw on television or in a movie, even when she is all by her lonesome (in fact, one assumes she does not have a social life because the fantasies contained within magazines and movies have acted as a sort of sick psychological substitute). Of course, quite thankfully, Zwartjes’ film is a mostly visceral experience and does not succumb to the sort of calculated pedantic intellectual methods that are quite typical of Godard’s films. Like a minimalistic avant-garde Dutch mutation of Roman Polanski’s Repulsion (1965) sans the schizophrenic horrors, murder, and sexual repression, It’s Me is indubitably a somewhat ironically titled work in that the heroine seems to have no true organic identity or personality of her own, but instead seems to exist solely to attempt to live up to the counterfeit glamour and shallow sexual appeal of her favorite unclad print starlet while she wastes away in her apartment in a bizarre yet banal hermetic ritual of movie and media induced self-transformation. Whether or not her character is based on herself, her younger self, and/or other actresses she encountered during her career, it is quite clear that van Ammelrooy is all too familiar with the internally damaged dame she portrays to the point where one has trouble separating the actress from the character.  Indeed, for better or worse, It's Me is Willeke van Ammelrooy completely raw and uncensored.

 After a sort of ‘Gothic chic’ glamour shot of van Ammelrooy, the film abruptly cuts to a shot of her foam-covered hand in a bathtub in a scene where it becomes immediately apparent that she lives for pleasure, especially the smaller pleasures in life. As demonstrated by the fact that she slowly sprawls out her limbs in the bathtub like a sleeping dog stretching in the sunlight, the heroine is a master when it comes to basking in her bourgeois domestic luxury. Notably, the viewer does not even see van Ammelrooy’s face for the first time until well into the 6 minute mark after her phone rings and she exits the tub in a rather relaxed fashion. Not surprisingly considering the context of the scene, the viewer has the distinguished pleasure to see van Ammelrooy's bosoms and beaver at virtually the same time we first see her face, but such brazen physical nakedness is nothing compared to the erratic emotions and strange psychological quirks that she will ultimately expose in Zwartjes' extra claustrophobic chamber piece. As for her phone call, the heroine says things like “Oh yes!!!” and “fine” like a phony porn star during what is clearly a patently pointless and painfully generic conversation. While most of the film is in English, it is oftentimes inaudible because Zwartjes opted to layer secondary audio tracks over the dialogue, thus giving the viewer the impression that the protagonist is scatterbrained bimbo that suffers from cognitive dissonance, among other things. After her fairly brief phone call, van Ammelrooy strips off her clothes and gets in the bathtub again so that she can drain the water, though she takes the opportunity to smoke a joint as she waits for the water to go down the drain. After she is all nice and clean, the heroine is ready to spend the rest of the film roaming around her small yet rather striking apartment like a histrionic harpy that is high on an inflated and wholly delusional sense self-esteem and a dubious cocktail of drugs. 

 As a result of a clearly fruitful collaboration between Zwartjes, his beauteous wife Trix Zwartjes, and a chick named Floor Peters that seems to have no other film credits to her name, the slightly flamboyant production design in It’s Me is absolutely alluring and quite fitting as the heroine’s apartment looks like that sort of flat Werner Schroeter might have put together had he worked as a production designer on a color sequel to David Lynch’s Eraserhead. Naturally, as someone that seems to spend all day inside where she is free to smoke while lounging around naked, van Ammelrooy seems to love her little lair as it probably the only place in the entire world where she is able to truly be herself and sharpen her acting talents without seeming like a total fool. Indeed, acting and resembling a slightly more tolerable and feminine Katharine Hepburn, the heroine says to an imaginary audience in an extra exaggerated melodramatic fashion things like, “You don’t want to understand” and “Oh, it’s a wonderful feeling…those people around me.” When she is not practicing acting, van Ammelrooy looks at magazines full of nude female models and then uses a portable mirror to compare her tits, pussy, and other body parts to those of said nude models. While it is dubious as to whether she is a dyke or even a passive part-time lily-licker, there is no question that van Ammelrooy lives in a personal estrogen-marinated pandemonium full of fiercely unflattering feminine psychological idiosyncrasies and bare and busty unclad female bodies where no masculine presence can be found. After all, one would expect that van Ammelrooy would receive at least one visit from a sensually potent male suitor of some sort, but the heroine seems more interested in closely examining her own boobs and smoking blunts than smoking a fuckpole or being vaginally pillaged by some young hunk.   Indeed, in the hysterically feminine world of It's Me, men are not even part of the equation, which is unfortunate considering that the heroine seems like she could at least be temporarily relieved of her internal turmoil if some kind young man were to make her feel like a real woman by sexually ravage her.

 While only mere speculation, I can only assume that the heroine’s single greatest obsession is trying on new clothes and shoes, which she does countless times during the film. Indeed, when van Ammelrooy straps on a pair of fancy high-heels, she does it in such a sensual and sensitive fashion that one can only assume the sort of delicacy that she puts into diddling herself. In contrast, when the heroine brushes her hair, she does so in a sinister fashion to the point where it seems like she might explode into a seething rage of irrational violence. In another scene, the heroine demonstrates her physical elegance by performing a little ballet routine while smoking a joint and fiddling with a large feathered fan in a fairly dark room that is lit by nothing but a small static TV screen. Of course, van Ammelrooy spends a little bit of time watching some Zwartjes-esque black-and-white footage of herself on a tiny TV screen during a fleeting metacinematic moment that seems to be a nod to the director's previous black-and-white shorts. After opting to play with her hair and making it quite curly, the heroine hatefully stares into the camera and then subsequently has a mental breakdown of sorts where she kicks things around her apartment and eventually sheds tears of anger and frustration. In fact, van Ammelrooy eventually mentally deteriorates to such a troubling degree that she begins pacing back and forth in her flat while mumbling incoherent mumbo jumbo. As to why the heroine acts the bizarre way that she does, she gives a hint when she states to her phantom audience, “ME. . .I’m not tired. I’m not lazy, too. I just do my profession. This is me. I’m only an actress” and then coughs and complains in a less than believable fashion, “I’m dying.” Towards the end of the film, the heroine picks up her obviously much prized gold-colored phone and spouts what can only be described as a garbled mess, though it seems somewhat doubtful that there is someone on the other line. When van Ammelrooy eventually gets off the phone, she sheds a tear as if she cannot bear the fact that no one is calling or interested in her. In the end in what is undoubtedly a fittingly unnervingly beautiful conclusion to an unnervingly beautiful film, the heroine stares directly at the viewer with a smirk on her face that grows from a goofy smile to maniacal laughing. 

 If It’s Me seems to be about anything, it about female narcissism, delusion, and self-deception, which of course seems to be especially prevalent in attractive actresses who have assuredly infected the rest of Occidental women with their perverse prima donna propensities.  Undoubtedly van Ammelrooy’s character seems like a sort of Dutch porn star Norma Desmond, albeit without the wealth and prestige that she would need to keep spectators and servants around to pay witness to her megalomaniacal displays of infantile vanity and nostalgic self-worship. Indeed, in many ways, one could argue that It’s Me is one of the most misogynistic films ever made (incidentally, Zwartjes’ later feature Pentimento was viciously attacked by feminists, who once raided a screening of the film and destroyed a print) as it paints an unsettling portrait of the so-called fairer sex, but I seriously doubt that it was the director’s intention as Zwartjes has never been a filmmaker with any strong intellectual or socio-political pretenses, even if one could argue that his cinematic works say more about their particular zeitgeist than most Dutch films from the same era.

More than anything, I could not help but be reminded of the ideas of anti-feminist Jewess Esther Vilar in her revolutionary text The Manipulated Man (1971) in regard to women and how they only seem to be concerned with what other members of their sex think. After all, throughout the film, van Ammelrooy is either comparing herself to other women or attempting to look like other women by trying on various outfits, thus providing credence to Vilar’s words, “Yes, only women exist in a woman’s world. The women she meets at church, at parent-teacher meetings, or in the supermarket; the women with whom she chats over the garden fence; the women at parties or window-shopping in the more fashionable streets; those she apparently never seems to notice – these women are the measure of her success or failure. Women’s standards correspond to those in other women’s heads, not to those in the heads of men; it is their judgment that really counts, not that of men […] Men really have no idea in what kind of world women live in; their hymns of praise miss all the vital points.”  Indeed, the genius of It's Me is that, although it only features one single character who rarely speaks, it is quite apparent that her superlatively superficial mind is almost solely focused on the styles, mannerisms, make-up, and hairdos of other women as if she is totally devoid of both an independent mind and distinct personality.  Of course, the heroine's truest self is ultimately revealed during her rather unflattering moments of neurotic rage.

 It has been my personal experience that the more a woman changes her appearance in a dramatic fashion and ‘reinvents’ herself, the more mentally unstable she is. I have also noticed that when women are at a low point in their lives and ‘feel’ ugly, especially when they have dumped or have been dumped by a boyfriend, they tend to get a ridiculously unbecoming hairdo that matches their melancholy or general mental instability. Of course, it is quite revealing that the uniquely unhinged female of It’s Me incessantly tries in vain to find a look that she will be content with, as her behavior demonstrates a perpetual state of internal chaos that no shitty dye or perm job could help alleviate. Notably, the heroine seems the most relaxed and mentally sound when she is naked, as if she feels completely free and not plagued by psychological and cosmetic baggage.  On the other hand, as Vilar noted in regard to women and their natural naked state, “Woman regards her natural self merely as the raw material of a woman. Not the raw material but the end result has to be judged. Unmade-up, without curls and bracelets and necklaces, women are not yet really present. This explains why they do not mind running around in curlers or with cold cream on their faces. It is not ‘they’ at that stage – they are still occupied with the process of becoming ‘them.’ They succeed with this sort of make-believe all the more easily because they are not hampered by any kind of intelligence.” Judging by Vilar’s admittedly rough but nonetheless reasonable remark, one can only assume that the great self-loathing Hebrew Otto Weininger was not too far off when he described women as being innately soulless and lacking true individuality, for their main concern is superficial appearances and maintaining a perennial aesthetic masquerade lest men discover that they are nowhere as intriguing or enigmatic as they would have you believe. 

I think it is quite fitting that a film entitled It’s Me ultimately demystifies female beauty and presents it as an absurd charade, as the viewer ultimately sees what is arguably post-WWII Holland’s most famous diva at her most literally and figuratively naked. Indeed, while a good number of men like to put pussy on a pedestal, especially premium grade pussy, and see dames as Delphic creatures that can never be truly understood, most women are thoroughly less intriguing than the extravagant costumes and make-up they wear, or as Vilar noted in regard to the major con that is femininity, “This femininity, synthetic in origin, consists of two different components: emphasis on secondary sexual characteristics and distancing herself by means of masks […] The first component serves to make her desirable to man, the second to make her mysterious to him. She herself thus creates the equivocal, unknown ‘opposite sex,’ making it easier for him to accept his enslavement. Thanks to the wide range of possible transformations each woman can offer a man – and a ‘real’ woman varies her looks just a little every day – she keeps him in a state of constant bewilderment. While he is still trying to find yesterday’s woman in today’s, she gains time to achieve her own ends. She will maneuver the man into an untenable position, all the time skillfully distracting his attention from the stench of a rotting mind beneath the pleasing mask.” Of course, it could be argued that the deathly pale corpse-like women featured in Zwartjes’ classic shorts like Visual Training are a symbolic depiction of womankind in its unmasked state and It's Me is simply the auteur's first realist work. 

 Aside from possibly effeminate dope-addled frog Philippe Garrel (Le revelateur, La cicatrice intérieure aka The Inner Scar), no other heterosexual cinematic auteur has demonstrated a deeper obsession for womankind in their natural habitat than Zwartjes, which is arguably most apparent in It’s Me where the viewer is forced to confront a less than mentally sound diva without both her literal and figurative make-up, thus making for a fairly singular cinematic experience that is just as grueling as it is rewarding. Undoubtedly the film will prove to be a strangely unsettling experience for any heterosexual man that has ever had to deal with the incessant indecisiveness, irrationality, and self-obsession of a beauteous broad who believes her physical appearance and, in turn, mental well-being and personal comfort are above all other concerns in the world. Of course, as Zwartjes’ film hints during the scenes where the lead attempts to act like a Golden Age Hollywood diva, the art of cinema has only compounded these particular forms of female psychosis as virtually all women now find themselves comparing themselves to the greatest beauties of the silverscreen. 

 Somewhat ironically, despite lacking the pancake make-up and eerie undead eroticism that is associated with the female figures in the director’s earlier films, the all-too-female heroine portrayed by van Ammelrooy is easily the most innately grotesque, repugnant, and insufferable woman that I have ever encountered in a Zwartjes flick.  Indeed, while the viewer is exposed to van Ammelrooy's naughty seductive stares and provocative physical gestures, It's Me is ultimately about as erotic as watching a raving afro-adorned negress receive electroshock therapy, even though Zwartjes still manages to showcase the heroine's pulchritude.  Notably, despite depicting the largely ugly and painful emotions of a delectable dame in a tiny apartment, it is also indubitably one of Zwartjes' most beauteous films.  Aside from the strikingly tableaux and agonizingly alluring lead, the film certainly benefits from its original electronic musical score by Zwartjes and Lodewijk de Boer (who created music for a number of Zwartjes' films and who later directed van Ammelrooy in his sole feature The Family (1973), which anticipates the ambient sounds of contemporary underground Danish musical projects associated with like record labels like Posh Isolation and Janushoved, including Internazionale, Croatian Amor, and Rosen & Spyddet, among various others.  While I must stop short of describing It's Me as a lost masterpiece, it is, like most of Zwartjes' oeuvre, certainly ripe for rediscovery among serious cinephiles that appreciate filmmakers that test the bounds of the entire artistic medium of cinema.  Certainly, one also cannot ignore a film that more or less subtly affirms Weininger's wise timeless words: “A man's real nature is never altered by education: woman, on the other hand, by external influences, can be taught to suppress her most characteristic self, the real value she sets on sexuality. Woman can appear everything and deny everything, but in reality she is never anything. Women have neither this nor that characteristic; their peculiarity consists in having no characteristics at all; the complexity and terrible mystery about women come to this; it is this which makes them above and beyond man's understanding – man, who always wants to get to the heart of things. . .

-Ty E

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