August 29, 2004|I entered into Suspect Zero saddled with some of the most venomous buzz for a picture since Catwoman; apparently a critic's screening somewhere in the wild Pacific Northwest had devolved into a hooting match. But I was hopeful, mainly because director E. Elias Merhige's first film, 1991's Begotten, is one of the bravest, most uncompromising experiments to come out of the American independent scene since Jonas Mekas. Silent, hallucinatory, deeply unsettling, it had the power to enrage and intoxicate in equal measure and did so, making no apologies about its debts to sources as highbrow and "pretentious" as Luis Buñuel and Carl Dreyer. (Seriously, in a time when our president is trying to turn "nuance" into a dirty word, who can blame the cattle calls of the brainwashed naysayer?) Begotten is a masterpiece and a Rorschach test in the way that the best experimental cinema can be: it has the conviction and kineticism of early Stan Brakhage--that is, if Brakhage had a background in William Blake instead of William Burroughs.
I'm still lukewarm towards his sophomore feature, the well-received, tongue-in-cheek Shadow of the Vampire, which saw Max Shreck (Willem Dafoe) as a real vampire and F.W. Murnau (John Malkovich) as a real monster. But I'm pretty sure that Suspect Zero is an underground classic in the making. It wallows in the same sort of lawlessness as Begotten, trafficking in archetypical basements and erecting stone totems with the delirious archivist sensibility of T.S. Eliot. The comparison is a lofty one, of course, but it's rare to have certain muscles exercised at any time, and the film's conclusion, draped across a Native American burial bier, has all the godless heft of Eliot's prayers to broken stones. The film is of a singular vision--narrative becomes inconsequential to the headlong rush of image, a black wave of pins on a map sweeping to the point of climax making sense in a way that surpasses reason. It's a symbolist serial killer film in a post-modern age: either ahead of its time or born too late.
So I was excited to chat with Mr. Merhige (sounds like "marriage") about his sources--the contents of his attic and bedside table, if you will. I'd heard that he is exceedingly bright but prefers to stay doggedly on-topic; I found him to be bright, for certain, but we travelled off the script in our conversation, finding common ground in the idea that the role of the artist and the role of the critic are both vital in the creation of new texts and compelling dialogues.
FILM FREAK CENTRAL: The introduction of the Ben Kingsley character, the upside-down shot, elaborate on that.
E. ELIAS MERHIGE: It came from this idea that I wanted to work out a design where all of a sudden the ordinary world--this man, his shadow comes through this door in a shot that is unusual in modern film, and it's an indication that we've been invited to enter into a different, shadow world. The sources of it were instinctual though, after a fashion. I mean I wanted to evoke this idea very simply and that was what occurred to me would work best for that in an economical, wordless way.
You rhyme that shot with a scene of discovery where the Aaron Eckhart character opens a map and discovers a few key clues.
Right--he sees the things in the case and in that instant his world turns upside-down. I wanted to announce that this isn't going to be an ordinary ride. That you come in thinking--the modern sophisticated audience comes in thinking--that they know all that there is to know about the police procedural film--and perhaps they do, but I wanted to indicate that I wasn't going to test them on that. That what I wanted to do was provide something just a little off the beaten track.
I marked a lot of doubling in your film--tell me about shadow plays and doppelgängers in your work.
I think that the only way to create a true catharsis is to go into the darkness, to embrace the shadow as it were. The abyss of finding meaning in a world that eludes meaning most of the time. To really create genuine catharsis is really important to me and to approach that degree of honesty, I think, there has to be a spiralling inward. The medium of film itself, when it was first introduced as a medium, it scared the daylights out of people. It was seen as some sort of demonology or witchcraft and I wanted to mirror that in the idea of remote viewing--that here was the United States government funnelling millions of dollars into this program to deconstruct the process of what it was that made the human mind psychic and if that could be taught. A marriage of technology with the supernatural. And for me, filmmaking is a little of that alchemy.
You said in another interview a few years ago that you saw the filmmaker as "a seer, someone who is looking ahead, bringing the ineffable and the stuff we can't speak about and put into words into the form of drama and images." Is Ben Kingsley's O'Ryan a filmmaker?
That's a really interesting connection that you're drawing, it's not something that I thought about during the shoot, I confess, but it fits. I'm very interested in that connection, very interested in it--that's exactly the filmmaker's role, to take us on a visionary quest, to challenge your own comfort zones, [to imperil] the life of your characters by extension of metaphor. I need to create that place where I'm chasing the avalanche or the avalanche is chasing me. If I feel as though I'm dealing just on the edge of things as I understand them, that maybe I can push back the border a little bit.
Two moments of your film: the message on glass, the reveal of the drawing behind wallpaper--are they taken from Dario Argento's Deep Red?
I've never seen that film--I guess I really need to now.
It's a detective story, the search is for a children's nursery song.
I love Argento. Suspiria, my god. He has a singular vision that's very much his own--he's playing with the erotic at play with death, corpses having sex with one another as the process of going to films. A danse macabre: we the lifeless as we're watching something lifeless. Unorthodox, very aggressive, experimental, and fascinating--a different facet to Buñuel in a lot of ways, this delight in shock. But it's shock with a great deal of weight.
A key moment in surrealist film is Buñuel's cloud across the moon-into-razor across an eyeball--an image that you appropriate for Suspect Zero. What is the importance of seeing and the obliteration of sight in your picture?
Let me step back a minute... There are so many different levels of seeing. It's impossible to limit the act of sight to the organ of the eye--it's a lie to say that it's limited to the eye. To me, sight is that poetic feeling that's created in the inner life of a character. It's the eye that you use to illuminate your world, if you follow, and the cinematographer--to extend your film metaphor--becomes the organ that allows an audience to experience that inner world. To be a filmmaker and cinematographer of that inner world--to make a film that allows the audience to become intimate with your inner geography--[is] the goal I think. The image of the eye, of seeing, of obliteration of sight, it serves a very literal function in the film, but it's also trying to get at something in which I believe in regards to the movies, and making movies. This idea that there's something more to movies than just the watching of them.
|Aaron Eckhart in Suspect Zero|
I refer to your film as a "metaphysical serial killer film," and by that I mean that it seems as though you're aspiring towards some kind of idea of sublimity.
Yes, yes. That's the core, the very heart of where I'm coming from. The way that I feel about universality in art--the timeless, perennial elements that are not just part of the times, but include those eternal, essentially human elements that resonate on a level beneath sight, beneath easy articulation. When I read the original script, there was no remote viewing. It was a great script, a great FBI procedural script--but my proposal was that we should go somewhere different because really, where could we go with that concept that hasn't been gone before? I looked a lot to Joseph Conrad's The Secret Sharer--this whispered conversation on the deck of the ship between the captain and his stowaway about whether the stowaway is a murderer or a hero. And in the end, the captain frees the stowaway to his freedom. That kind of poetic whispering on the deck of a ship beneath a starry sky became the model for Suspect Zero.
An interesting comparison, because here you have the captain, a symbol of logic and Milton's "right reason," set against the stowaway, a creature of dark and the unconscious--the shadow.
Yes, right. I think that's what drives me to tell stories--to marry those two parts of ourselves, the light and the shadow, and not to cut one off from the other. Once you do that, you cripple the human condition and you proliferate a lie.
It's one of the key problems of popular Christianity, this denial of the other.
You're tapping into the second part of Begotten--I'd written three parts to it, and the second deals exactly with that deficiency. You must address the underneath or it swallows you.
There's a real Max Shreck-ian quality to Ben Kingsley--conscious?
Oh sure, yes. I mean, both Nosferatu and O'Ryan are monsters, but I wanted to bring this otherworldliness to the mannerisms of the character. And because of my predilections and affections, one of the more memorable characters from German Expressionism seemed to me to be a great shorthand for Kingsley's character and performance. Looking at Murnau's work, at Sunrise, you really see this fantastic manneristic series of gestures.
What's your favourite sequence from Sunrise?
I love when he's contemplating killing his wife, how he's imagining it as he's kneeling at her bed. He's thinking and all of a sudden he wants to break the spell, and then he hears this whistling from outside and his hands sink into the quilt. It's extraordinary, so much information about the man and his situation just in a thought and a hand movement. [Murnau] did that with the Last Laugh, too: the use of montage becomes physically palpable.
Aside from cinematic influences, I marked a few references to German Romanticist painter Caspar David Friedrich. Can you tell me about your cross-media interests?
Friedrich is one of my favourites--there's also Bruegel the Elder, and I would say a lot of the symbolist works, people like Arnold Bocklin...
Really terrifying treatments of mythology.
(laughs) Exactly--so, clearly, Bocklin was an influence. Corbet--I love the way Corbet portrays mythological figures, it informed my use of the Icarus myth in the film. What I really learned from the Symbolists and the Romanticists is the lie of the real world, they offered glimpses into the world that lies behind. What we see with their eyes is the true world, that's the reality. I really believe that.
It's really melancholy that drives Romanticism.
Yes, it's lament--that element of lament that terrifies western culture. I think that's why I'm so drawn to Middle Eastern cultures so often, and Middle Eastern music--it's that courage to lament, to cry, [to] engage in ululations. Even looking to the Far East, the Japanese and their Noh tradition, there's a deep poetic resonance more than a linear narrative. It's not about story, it's about a feeling, and that insight allows you to gain a foothold into a true world.
You mention Noh and that brings in the question of masks--you use two masks in your film: a demon mask in O'Ryan's cell, and a child's face in a box in an attic.
First, the demon mask: I was invited to dinner at the Jemez Indian Nation at Pueblo and I was eating with the chief and they'd shown me this mask that was made from a horse's head painted with a human face. It was a totem that sees all things, the horse in their tradition races so quickly across the world that it can see all things, so this mask was for seers, painted and sculpted, given hair and made to look human. Grotesque, but human, and almost glowing with this totemic power--and that was what I wanted to be in O'Ryan's room, it seemed to be just the right image.
And the child's face?
The connection is that the one represents expansion of vision, and the other is contraction. It's removed, first of course, representing this really nihilistic, cynical, selfishness, y'know? And then it's spirited away to an attic in a case hidden away and locked and buried under piles of newspapers.
Is that a suggestion that written language is unreliable?
Exactly, yes, I think that this read is accurate. The writing in this film, the memos and faxes and notes--the modern, common ways of communication, of seeing, of vision, they don't do anything to touch the heart. They have nothing, you know, for the soul.
So what, then, is your relationship to critics?
It's a painful one sometimes. I'm glad I started out with Begotten because it was polarized extremes, the reaction to that film, and what I learned from that is how to understand my own work through the eyes of others. There's always going to be superficial stuff that comes out of critical pens, but there are a few that consistently tap into that gestalt of what you're doing and when they get it, it sends a chill up my spine. It's an affirmation that I've tapped the vein. So I'm very interested in what critics have to say, even when they're petty or dismissive, because there are enough moments that validate the choices that you make and the fights that you fight. That even in this environment you don't need to make the stupidest movie you can possibly make, that you can make a film that's your own and that enough people will get it. I guess it makes you, the critic--as a filmmaker--my shadow.