Friday, August 30, 2013


Thanks to Netflix, multi-region DVD's & Youtube uploads, movies are becoming less & less rare these days but Everett Lewis' 1993 film; An Ambush Of Ghosts still holds the mystique of being one of the few truly rare modern films in existence. I've never seen this but luckily Nathaniel Drake Carlson, who contributed to PINNLAND EMPIRE at the beginning of the year, is one of the few people who has.


Everett Lewis's 1993 film An Ambush of Ghosts is a genuine lost masterpiece, though in this case "lost" for reasons simply having to do with distributor resistance. I was fortunate enough to see the film at a rare public screening in 2001 on the campus of USC with both director Lewis and his cinematographer, Judy Irola, in attendance. It remains to date the pinnacle moment of a long personal journey for me of uncovering and seeking out the film itself.

My initial awareness of it came shortly after the January '93 Sundance premiere. As a great fan of the British classical synth group In the Nursery I discovered their soundtrack to Ambush later that year and was utterly captivated by its dark majesty.The album also includes dialogue extracts which just served to further heighten my restless anticipation. But nothing ever came of that. The film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival to acclaim and then effectively disappeared, almost never to be heard of again and without even the consolation of a video release anywhere.

Ambush was likely ahead of its time and too singular an achievement for the independent film marketplace of 1993. It preceded the wave of other stylish visions of goth darkness like Seven, Requiem for a Dream, Donnie Darko and even The Crow. In many respects though its closest tonal equivalent seems to me to be the bracing and anguished contemporary fairy tales of Philip Ridley. Ambush concerns a troubled teenager named George (Stephen Dorff) living in a suburb of Los Angeles. A decade prior he witnessed the accidental killing of his younger brother by their mother, Irene (Geneviève Bujold). He was hit by her car when he ran behind her while he played catch with George. In the time since, mom has gone slowly mad, often driving her husband to use sedatives and restraints to appease her. George, meanwhile, finds another teen boy hiding in the family shed. Evidently Christian has also killed someone by accident, a rival during a fight at the local high school. However, his story is contradicted by vibrant, blood red flashbacks which present another reality altogether. George attempts to act as an intermediary but finds his situation complicated as he develops feelings for Christian's girlfriend, Denise. The film ends with the reality of everything we have seen called into question.

The narrative itself is compelling but it's the formal elements and how they translate that text which are the source of the film's accomplishment. Irola (who won the cinematography award at Sundance for Ambush) describes the style she and Lewis crafted as "painterly", specifically derived from the look of such artists as Caravaggio and Vermeer but also inspired by the films of Dreyer and Antonioni. Notable as well is the fact that the cast, though largely filled with unknowns at the time, features the likes of Anne Heche, David Arquette and, most significantly, Dorff as George. Variety singled out Dorff's performance for praise and Detour magazine referred to it as the strongest male performance at Sundance that year. Producer Robert Shulevitz told me that it wasn't all acclaim, however. At Sundance the audience was given cards to rate the film on a numerical basis between 0 and 5. As indication of the polarized responses to come, Ambush received a lot of 6's and 0's. Later, the film sold out a six hundred seat theater at the Seattle Film Festival on the basis of a blurb in the programme announcing the cast alone. By the end of its 90 minute running time two-thirds of the audience had walked out. If nothing else, An Ambush of Ghosts was never to be met with indifference.

Shulevitz describes how several distributors attempted to handle the film but found its tone far too authentically raw and painful to manage a sale. One distributor even wanted to completely eliminate the first ten minutes (a sequence of highly stylized and intensely personal torment which Lewis describes as a "mnemonic melody of the past madness" and says was the most cut and recut sequence in the picture). Others balked at the stunningly dark sequences. Video distribution even became a problem when it came clear that the dark palette of the film was outside the legal limits of color contrast allowed for most US TV sets. So then both style and substance have served as stumbling blocks but Lewis acknowledges that was always going to be a problem. He notes that rather than simply regurgitate yet another variant on the conventionally familiar dysfunctional family genre a decision was made during production to take a far more strenuous route--to replicate through the composition and form of the film the mental state of a disturbed, even insane individual.

Ambush uses the dysfunctional family/adolescent angst genre simply as a starting point for an exploration of the real suffering so often glossed over by films of this type. Its focus is laser like in precision and just as intensely invasive. The structure and tone contribute to a sense of dislocation while making a case for the appropriate use of an operatic style to access and convey authentic emotional states. Instead of a gradual development toward specific emotional heights Ambush immediately presents a scenario of totalizing trauma but one that has receded internally and can thus be represented in grandly formalist terms. George and Irene reel in their own separate universes of absolute, enveloping despair. Much of the opening is meant to establish that this is not going to be a naturalistic presentation of grief but rather only about one aspect suspended and maintained indefinitely and with no way out (we see too that the restoration of the family home, in process at the time of the accident, is equally suspended). Both characters share some sense of guilt, the notion that they could have or should have done something differently, but they are each too far gone to share the burden or to commiserate as a way of alleviating the pain. So they are condemned to private hell. The notion of a decade having passed like this only adds to the sense of devastation.

The infamous first ten minutes depict how this plays out. We see what we at first believe to be legitimate home video footage of the incident, only gradually realizing that no one would have actually recorded this. It represents how we maintain our memories: in bleeding and blurring still frames of significance. We see Bujold in her dead son's room, still preserved like a shrine, wailing on his bed. We see her lie in the gravel of the driveway behind the car in the same spot and position taken by her lost child when he was taken from her, by her. Later we see her being sedated and restrained in bed with shackles to quell her hysteria. This is enacted by the ineffectual father figure played with a sublime understated grace by Bruce Davison. The father has scarcely any role here because he does not share the same direct experience of the pain associated with this tragedy and thus must be confined forever to the periphery. But everyone is equally confined and isolated.

Dorff, for his part, remains locked in medium close-up for these opening minutes, barely distinguishable through a lattice work of shadow. He talks to his dead brother, crying out for him, for his own void to be filled. The intensive focus of these early scenes makes the sequence seem to last even longer than it does and yet, somehow, also to last virtually no time at all, such is its hypnotic effectiveness. Certainly though there was something uniquely thrilling about witnessing just this sequence alone, something of such clear and undeniably uncompromising conviction.

Once the tone proper has been established the film begins after brief opening credits. The main thrust of the narrative revolves around George's discovery of the young man named Christian (Alan Boyce) hiding in the family garage after accidentally killing another student in a fist fight. Christian befriends George, mostly as a means to an end, and enlists him to act as an intermediary between himself and his girlfriend Denise (Anne Heche).

It is here, in this seemingly arbitrary plot development, where An Ambush of Ghosts truly takes off. The film implies the connection between George and Christian, both of whom are accidental murderers. But there are further disturbing intimations that Christian may have been more cognizant of his actions then he lets on, perhaps even more then he may consciously know.

There is, for instance, an early scene--brilliantly played--in which Christian attempts to convince George of his relative innocence, that things just got out of hand. But intercut throughout are the red tinted flashbacks to what we can only imagine is a more objective truth: Christian's brutal attack, viciously assaulting the other boy on the hood of a car in an empty parking lot. Is Christian a liar trying to save himself? Is he blocking out the incident or is he far more calculating than that, far more deviously dangerous? Or, perhaps, is his guilt really a projection of George's own perception of himself, of his concerns about complicity with his brother's death? The implications are vast, made all the more painful because they are never elaborated upon. We simply cannot know.

The depth of what is accomplished within this simple set-up can't be overstated. George believes Christian when he says that he came to him because he feels he can confide in George. Dorff's character is so emotionally stunted that he grasps at even this transparent manipulation as sincere because he so desperately needs to believe it. He goes on to form an unhealthy attachment to Christian and later to Denise. As older girls sometimes do with younger boys who are clearly awkward around them, she flagrantly flirts with George in an attempt to disarm him. He, of course, takes it as the real thing.

There is an incredible, elaborate funeral sequence for the murdered boy, almost entirely without dialogue but a showcase for virtuosic moving camera work, evocative scoring by In the Nursery and heightened though nuanced performances. George holds Denise but it is evident in the gesture and the inflection of the body language that he is not comforting her--he is at his own brother's funeral and he is comforting himself.

As the picture winds down Christian prepares to turn himself in, reasoning that it is the only thing he can do. George can not deal with the prospect of abandonment yet again. While embracing Christian farewell he plunges one of his mother's sedative needles into Christian's arm, proceeds to strip him down to the waist and shackle him to the wall with his mother's wrist restraints. The scene is played at a furious, high pitched level, mostly in theatrical long shot similar to some of Greenaway's tableau set pieces, lit Vermeer like with pools of light in surrounding darkness. The movie even goes so far as to include a scene in which Christian awakens, toys with the idea of escaping, then reflects back on George's pleas for him to stay and basically decides to do so, remaining George's prisoner in the shed. But is he a prisoner of love, desire or just desperate need? An Ambush of Ghosts leaves these kind of questions tantalizingly open, suggesting that the answer could very well be all of the above.

Dorff manages to carry his character so far into psychosis as to pass beyond heightened caricature and back into a newly consecrated harrowing reality. It's a penetratingly authentic performance even in the midst of the gorgeously overwrought spectacle of the film itself. His job is almost impossible in its difficulty as he must be weak and indecisive and yet selfish, ravenously insecure and needy, victimizer as well as victim, often all at the same time.

An Ambush of Ghosts ends with a sequence in which George finally goes completely over the edge losing whatever grip he had left on his tenuously held stability. And we see that via an altered version of the opening home video style flashbacks, this time with George at eighteen. Here he can alter the history of the event that destroyed his family's peace. He can rush to rescue his brother and salvage his mother's sanity. The ending is "happy" in the same way as that of Gilliam's Brazil. Our hero can finally attain some measure of peace but at what cost, at what necessary retreat from reality? The other questions it provokes are similar as well: is a happy ending always illusory? Does it have to be? Is this even an ending? Whatever the answers to these questions, it is, strictly speaking, a genuine catharsis as climax. In the case of An Ambush of Ghosts there is the additional issue as to how much of what we have seen functions solely as a projection of George's fractured psyche. There is the possibility, too, that it may be a case of subjectifying all experience as in Eyes Wide Shut.

Any summary of Ambush, however detailed, can only approximate its overwhelming sensory impact. It is a rare work of an ultra refined cinematic aesthetic, one which somehow manages to sustain for its entire duration an operatic pitch made up from what is dreamlike and what is all too painfully, recognizably real. Its unrelenting intensity can be exhausting, especially when translated through Everett Lewis's rigorous compositions, but that is also the source of its uniquely profound effect. As the director himself has said, most films are heavily mediated experiences intent on prioritizing what elements surface in each scene but in Ambush all the elements of every scene go hell-for-leather. There is no prioritizing. The experience of the film is a virtual assault upon the senses.

In the body of Lewis' work, which continues to expand and increase, Ambush stands out for its extreme formalism. Many of his films since (like 1996's Skin & Bone and 2002's Luster) have almost been a repudiation of that approach to filmmaking. They are marked by a much looser, free form quality that gives the impression of a more natural, even spontaneous, capturing of events. It should be noted too that they are also all concerned with a treatment of pronounced gay themes. This is something that may be said to have existed in more nascent form in his first features (1990's The Natural History of Parking Lots as well as Ambush) but becomes prominent afterwards. I like that aspect of those early films, though; the way in which the element of homoeroticism is simply not overtly acknowledged but rather infused into the text, allowing for a more subtle range of expression and acting as only one angle of interpretation among many. While there is much to be admired about Lewis's developing style and his other films, that should not and cannot obscure the specific nature of the accomplishment of Ambush. With any luck his continuing and increasing cinematic relevance will prompt an interest in his back catalogue as well. There always remains hope that somehow whatever it is that has acted to impede the official release of the film will someday be removed. One can only hope. And, of course, spread the word.


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