starring Penny Fuller, Kentucker Audley, Grace Glowicki, Reed Birney
written and directed by Albert Birney & Kentucker Audley
by Walter Chaw Strawberry Mansion is very much like a live-action "Adventure Time", perhaps doomed, like Pendleton Ward's existentialist/surrealist masterpiece, to a long road to appreciation as something emotionally incisive rather than something especially but merely unconventional. Of all the antecedents it boasts (add eXistenZ, Alphaville, Tom Schiller's Nothing Lasts Forever, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Douglas Adams's work, and, um, Laura to the mix), however, Strawberry Mansion finally reminds me most of the Oliver Stone-produced miniseries "Wild Palms" in both its literal execution and the low thrum of underlying paranoia about the commodification of dream sleep. The danger is great that a stew as heady as this will be ponderous at best, indecipherable at worst, but it's delivered with a confident, even light touch by co-writers/co-directors Kentucker Audley and Albert Birney. As odd as it seems on the surface, the picture, again like "Adventure Time", has easy-to-argue themes and is guided by what feels like real, cathartic pathos. Strawberry Mansion's aggressive artifice actually enhances its emotional authenticity. I love this film.
Preble (Audley) is a tax man performing an audit of kindly Bella (Penny Fuller), who lives by herself in a large, empty house where she's amassed a horde of dreams recorded on large cassettes. In this world, see, dreams are taxable things, fungible objects to the extent that corporations have learned how to insert advertisements into them and governments have figured out how to tax them. Of all the future dystopias presented for how dreams will be exploited (whether weaponized or perverted for personal vengeance/political advantage), the idea that Capitalism will figure out a way to colonize them strikes me as the most plausible and, because it's the most plausible, the bleakest as well. Before we entirely know what's going on, Preble has a dream in a strawberry-coloured house where a grinning adman masquerading as a best friend pushes a bucket of chicken. In the morning, properly incepted, Preble goes through the drive-thru for a bucket of chicken with, of course, a nice Repo Man-style chicken shake to wash it down. It's the future as intimate corporate violation--the logical evolution of the nightmare omni-Amazon future Spielberg proposed in Minority Report.
Yet Strawberry Mansion isn't about all that. Instead, it's a love story between Preble and the young dream-version of Bella (Grace Glowicki) Preble meets through the cassettes he needs to watch in the performance of his duties. She can't see him in there, of course, until she can--that is, until waking Bella's new dreams start to incorporate him. There's a moment in Charlie Kaufman's Synecdoche, New York where winsome playwright Caden Cotard tries to woo his dream lover Hazel in the middle of a burning home. It's echoed during the conclusion to Strawberry Mansion as Preble works through multiple realities while flames lick at his sleeping self. Or maybe they don't. Maybe it's a metaphor. It doesn't matter. What matters is the extent to which this film honours the sprung, liquid logic of dreaming where something is now you, now a sandwich, now my mother. Preble finds himself the captain of a pirate ship crewed by human-sized rats in sailor's costumes; having a dinner made for him by a glowing-eyed wolf-demon; and dining in a fancy restaurant where a grog with a lovely baritone and aspirations of becoming a musician acts as the waiter. A good one, too, attentive and concerned about the bird that's gotten loose in there.
And through it all is the emotional tether of Preble falling in love with Bella and Bella falling in love back. I adore a moment where he says to dream Bella, "This is where we had our first lunch [together]," and you remember that he's talking about the time "real" Bella answered the door and invited him in in exchange for a lick of his ice-cream cone. Then Preble and Bella are meteorites streaking towards the earth and disintegrating before impact, and now I'm sure that's a metaphor--for falling, for the vertiginous terror of new love, for altered states that reveal finer truths through the nature of the mutation. Strawberry Mansion would play beautifully with Jocelyn DeBoer and Dawn Luebbe's Greener Grass, together at the vanguard of these candy-coated, Lynchian dissections of the essential absurdity of our day-to-day. I wasn't familiar with Audley and Birney before this; I'm excited and glad to have some homework to do.