Strawberry Mansion is fascinating stuff: a film that runs the danger of being distracting for its quirkiness but is, in point of fact, a mature piece about investing in love with the full knowledge of how love is heartbreak. It isn't, in other words, odd for the sake of odd, but rather odd for the specific purpose of communicating a point of view, a creative ethos. It's...is the word "artisanal?" If it's not, it's like that. There's a lot of same going around (same as it always was, as it happens), but here's a new thing, and if you don't support it, then more new things don't happen. There's hope with a film like this, because it points to someone brave enough to make it and then a few more someones willing to find a way to get it into theatres and onto streaming services.
I was excited for the opportunity to speak over Zoom with the team behind Strawberry Mansion, co-writers/co-directors/co-stars Albert Birney and Kentucker Audley. I began by asking what, for them, was the function of dream sleep:
ALBERT BIRNEY: That's a big question. For me personally, as I get older, there are some dreams you remember, and some you don't, but the ones you remember, I try to take them into my waking life where I can think about them, take them apart a little bit. I'm looking for a life lesson in there. I think they can be great teachers if we're listening--if we're able to follow them wherever they're trying to lead us. One thing we talked a lot about with this movie is how a lot of our earliest emotional memories are from dreams, like being a 12-year-old kid and having a dream where you fall in love and then waking up and realizing that that person wasn't real. That's hard. That's your first heartbreak, you know? And yeah, it's not real, but the heartbreak is real. You wake up and you're sitting there in your room and have this deep longing. That's the beginnings of heartbreak, you know? Dreams can teach us how to feel or how to be well-rounded emotional beings.
KENTUCKER AUDLEY: I'm fascinated by the mystery of them. You can see them as direct manifestations of psychological issues or while you're working through certain things, but I like them because they're your subconscious on autopilot. I think dreams are trying to heal your psyche while you sleep. You know, dealing with what needs to be dealt with. Sort of wiping clean some sort of traumas, paranoia, nervousness, anxiousness about your life. I think it works differently at different stages of your life. But I think the thing that really resonates with me about dreams is how you can never quite pin them down, you can't decode what they're there to do. They replicate the mystery of life.
FILM FREAK CENTRAL: You know, what I hated about Inception among all the things I hated about it was how the dreams it depicted are incredibly boring. He dreams about a city folding in half. I dream my mother's a fish.
AB: I remember when I first heard about Inception, I already had the idea for this movie way back then, and I was like, oh my gosh, he's doing it first. You know, there goes this idea I have. I went and saw it and I thought the same thing: I was like, this doesn't feel at all like my dreams. This is like a James Bond movie or something, you know, like all of a sudden we're in a snow fort in the mountains... This is just an action movie! Dreams are so elusive and mysterious, you're in one place talking to one person, and you turn around and the person has changed and you're in a new spot. I hadn't seen too many movies that did that, that felt authentic to how my dreams felt. So this project was a lot of trying to be true to that feeling of being in a dream. I just finished watching "The Sopranos", and I think "The Sopranos" did a great job with dreams. There must be, I don't know, four or five episodes that feature dream sequences heavily, and every time I was like, yeah, this, they're doing it right, right here. I was just about letting the images kind of exist and not try to explain them, let them be fluid--let the characters change mid-scene, let the whole feeling of it change.
KA: The central characteristic for me about dreams is their quality of indecipherability. It can be hard to do that with movies, because there's always this tug to explain everything. A lot of people who watch movies want them to make sense, but dream logic works against that. If you really lean into that uncertainty, if you really accept it, we're asking for your trust, because we're not going to explain what everything is about. What's this image? How is it functioning, and what does it mean for the characters? If you commit to it, if you commit to not explaining everything, then you're halfway there evoking a dream state. You can't be afraid of alienating the audience by making your story narratively indecipherable. We're coming from a place of a small indie movie that can afford to risk going against the grain.
There's a certain irony in watching your films because you're so anti-commodification while you're working in the most commodified medium...
AB: Yeah. I think that tension is a challenge that we get excited by. How do we continue to be anticapitalist if we're featuring commercials and brands? We're interested in how fun and colourful commercials are, so we have a character who's a brand spokesman who peddles fast-food chicken, and yet if that was a real bucket of KFC, then all of a sudden we're not satirizing capitalism, we're actually participating in it.
KA: Modern marketing is scary, dark and scary, but it's dressed up to be fun and entertaining. We want people to use our work as an escape from the ads that are in every part of our life, to make fun of them even as they're thinking it isn't that wild a thing for our sacred dream spaces to be infiltrated by commercials. All we can do is laugh. The system is huge and crushing you down and that's scary, and all you can do is just try to laugh while you're hoping that if you're making them laugh, people will turn off whatever ads in their own life they can--if it's even possible anymore, I don't know.
I love the line you give "old" Grace that she wanted someone to share her dreams with, because it's not aspirational--it's literal.
AB: There was a decade in my twenties where I kept a dream journal, and I got pretty into it. I got to the point in my dream journal where I would have dreams about writing in my dream journal, you know? Dreams played a really big role in my life then: I was in conversation with them, I was taking ideas from them on a daily basis. A few of those ideas and images make it into this movie, a few in previous movies. As I've gotten older, I've grown away from that habit.
AB: I think it's because I wake up and I have a phone that I look at, and the phone kind of takes that special time in the morning when you're coming out of sleep. Still though, maybe once a week I'll have a pretty big dream that I'll wake up thinking about. If someone in my life was in it, I'll text them and kind of be like, "Hey, you were my dream last night," just to get a little discussion going--a catalyst to visit friends and then start up an actual, real-life conversation with them or with family.
KA: For me, I think it's just my brain kind of running on autopilot. I try not to think too much about dreams.
There was an influential study in the 1980s that said that the function of REM sleep is literally to clean out your headspace.
AB: Oh, that's good. It's good to be corroborated in that because I used to be really fixated on how they must mean something. I felt a real pressure to remember all of them--to write them down and carry them with me throughout the day. At this point, at my age, I was like, well, dreams, whatever you need to do, I'm just gonna live my real life. That's hard enough.
"It's already so passive to consume most things--I always think about actively listening to music because there's something special about music, and maybe the more you have to do to get the thing playing, the healthier it is for your soul."
You draw a stark line between analog and digital in the film. I have the strong sense that you believe human memory is analog.
AB: Definitely. I think what I love most about analog technologies like VHS and cassette tapes is the fact that they can die. They can disintegrate. Who's the guy who did the disintegration loops where it's like the one-piece playing for like an hour and it's just like slowly going away?
AB: That's him. It's one of the most beautiful pieces of music I've ever heard. It's the same six seconds looping, slowly degrading until it's nothing. I love that. That's, that's our life, you know, and our memories. Our memories are analog. They're fading away. If we didn't have photographs, would we remember a birthday party when we were a kid? If we didn't have a video recording or an audio recording, would we remember these things, or would we have another memory that wouldn't be exactly true? I think analog technology feels more human or, to get a little Cronenberg, a little biological. Of course, analog is just physically more beautiful to me. Maybe that's because I grew up with VHS, but, you know, a room full of DVDs just doesn't have the same physical presence. I can't explain it other than that. Powerful. I noticed the records behind you...records are beautiful artifacts. I see Magnetic Fields up there, too, which is an all-time favourite band, and if I'm going to listen to "69 Love Songs" it's not just the what but the how. You want the ritual of taking it out. You put the needle down on its surface, you can hear the grooves, you have a booklet in your hands while it's playing. It's that versus an MP3 playing in the background at a touch of a button. But how you honour this artifact, this art that someone has made, is by the ritual of how you play it. VHS is, is not even the best example for film. 16mm projection or 35mm projection maybe is the ultimate, but, you know, just the nature of our lives makes that kind of ritual hard. Set up your projector every time you want to watch something. So VHS tapes have always been kind of like this middle ground.
And, of course, it's very fragile.
AB: Yes. As a kid, I would rent movies--PG 13 or R-rated movies when I could--and when it would get to some of the nudity or sex in a movie, the tape would be extra-worn because other people that had rented them had rewound that scene over and over again. I remember being a young kid and kind of figuring that out, like, why is this happening in all these movies when it gets to this section? That's beautiful to me. If there's a flaw on a DVD, it just starts skipping and then you can't watch it. It just turns off, you know, or you get a blue screen. But a VHS tape tells a story.
KA: It seems like throughout the ages, the less you have to do to do something... It started with these elaborate machines you twist and thread or you like you put your head into, and then, you know, you put the film on and it has a physical weight--even the LaserDisc had heft, the VHS, and then smaller with a DVD now, it's just pixels in the air. I just...I just push a button. I think the more you interact with the thing that you're consuming, maybe it integrates you and also the thing to a higher place. It's sort of a paradox. It's already so passive to consume most things--I always think about actively listening to music because there's something special about music, and maybe the more you have to do to get the thing playing, the healthier it is for your soul.
Why haven't you shot on 8mm?
AB: It's funny you say that, I actually have a Super 8 camera in my closet that I thought about selling on eBay. I was like, should I sell this? I haven't used it in a couple of years, but I couldn't bring myself to do it, because I was like, you know what? There's still some stories to be told on this beautiful old camera.
Your films talk about captivity and freedom. What are you trapped by? What do you hope to escape to?
KA: We're simple people. I'm trapped in that identity as we all are in our own identities and selves, at least of what society wants us to be, what society thinks of us[.] At my age now, I think there's maturity in trying not to get too fixated on what your function is according to society. It's enough just to do what you can. It isn't good to get too anxious about what you're not doing with your life or to consider all the ways you're trapped. I mean, it's daunting enough to hold that perspective... I think I prefer not to really put too much thought into those big questions.
AB: Yeah. I think at first I was gonna say something like, I don't know, I'm trapped by society or this or that, but honestly, I feel like a big part of my life is just being. We're all, we're all in these bodies. We have to feed them. Water them and clean them and take care of them. Rest them. We do that because that's all we know, but ultimately we're bigger than our bodies. We have these ideas and these thoughts and these, you know, when you listen to a really great piece of music, when you listen to Stephin Merritt singing, he's taking you outside of your body and you're in a realm of the heavens or something. I would say I feel trapped by my body and I'm trying to get home and home is that place we all come from that's...where? Up in the sky or wherever you want it to be. But that's the journey of my life. Hopefully what these movies are trying to explore in some capacity is that idea of coming home.
David Copperfield--you quote it.
AB: I took a David Copperfield class years ago at school, and it was the first time I had a teacher who really opened my eyes. The first time I thought, "Books are wonderful and you can get lost in them." It was a Dickens class, and that book specifically was, you know, eight or 900 pages. I was 16 or 17, and that feeling of I can't believe how I'm getting lost in this book has always stuck with me. The opening is kind of about like, am I going to be the hero of my life? I, I don't know yet, I still don't know--but I want these pages, his book, my work, to maybe answer that.
The word "preble" recurs in your work, here as the main character's name. What is it? All I could find was it's a place name.
AB: I used to live in upstate New York, and driving from Rochester to Baltimore, we'd pass the town of Preble. I think it's pronounced "pre-bill," but I always liked the sound of "prebble." But it was just a sign, you know, that I would pass over and over again. And eventually, you just kinda...you fall in love with a word or a name, and it kind of becomes its own thing, but I don't know, maybe 'cause it also sounds like a pebble. It sounds kind of small. It fit this character. Just a little Preble, you know, in the big world.
It feels lonesome. Your film has a powerful sense of melancholy.
KA: That's a big word. We always try to get to "melancholy." I don't know. I feel like, for us, it's this strongest of feelings, and it's so difficult to get to without... Especially if you're trying to be really lighthearted with certain things. But yeah, I'm glad that melancholy pulled through.
I saw a ring on your finger, Kentucker, and I'm just thinking like, you know, when you decide to fall in love with somebody, you know somebody is going to die before the other one has, and the other one has to watch it. Love is an act of masochism.
KA: Yeah. I love that. I think about that every, every night going to sleep, looking at my wife, thinking this is going to end[.] We joke. We want to die within like 20 minutes of each other. Cause there's just, I don't know how to go beyond that. What happens after the love of your life leaves seems too much to bear. I can't even imagine with kids. I think we had decided not to have kids cause it was too much pain and melancholy. Like, let's just cut down on the amount of people that we're going to lose or are going to lose us and go from there.