American movies are drowning in fantasy, but far more dire than its quantity is its quality. The absolute power of C.G.I. has been harnessed mainly by corporate producers who’ve turned movie fantasies into dominant forms of world-spanning, mind-numbing propaganda. Yet, at its best, fantasy is both a way of representing realities too enormous to grasp at ground level and an imaginative liberation from daily constraints. A new independent film directed by Kentucker Audley and Albert Birney, “Strawberry Mansion,” made on a scant budget, relies on a wide array of movie techniques and deploys them in conspicuously hands-on ways to create a wild science-fiction world that satirizes grim trends of modern life while tapping into a haunted realm of frustrations and desires.
Audley and Birney joined forces a few years ago for another do-it-yourself fantasy, “Sylvio,” in which Birney plays the title role—a gorilla who aspires to fame as a puppeteer—and Audley plays a talk-show host who makes Sylvio famous. Although it’s centered on an unreal character, created with costume and mime, placed in a realistic context, the film contains a visionary effects-driven sequence that looks ahead to the extravagances that “Strawberry Mansion” unleashes. The new film (which opens this Friday in theatres, and next Friday online) is set in 2035 and stars Audley as James Preble, a “dream auditor” for the U.S. government, which has established taxes on dreams. (Objects that appear in them are assigned values, a small percentage of which is calculated as tax.) Preble shows up at a remote house in a green field to audit the dreams of an elderly widow, Annabella Isadora (Penny Fuller), a.k.a. Bella, who hasn’t filed in years and whose dreams are stored on more than two thousand VHS tapes (not the new, mandatory “airstick” format). Preble installs himself in her home (she insists that he stay in a nearly empty bedroom, which he’d share with her pet turtle) and gets to work, using enticingly retro updatings of late-analog equipment: a top-loading video deck connected by a hose-like cable to a viewing helmet the size of a shipping crate. (Preble is himself a throwback—he drives an early-sixties Chevy Corvair and dresses in a turn-of-the-millennium-hipster version of early-sixties detective clothes, with a tweed jacket, a thin tie, and a fedora.)
The future, as sketched in colorfully decorative detail by Audley and Birney, resembles the recent and superseded pre-digital past. The filmmakers’ apparent nostalgia instead sketches, with ironic charm, a dire view of 2035, when digital image-making and image-disseminating tools are taken out of the public’s hands, even out of the government’s hands, and reserved for ubiquitous and dominant commercial forces. A symbolic hint of those forces turns up in a recurring set of Preble’s own dreams, in which he’s stuck in a matte-pink room (even the metal fixtures and food containers are all the same blank color) where a friend (Linas Phillips) shows up bearing popular brands of fast food and soft drinks—which Preble, soon thereafter, consumes in his car en route to the audit. Dreams, it turns out, are subjected by advertisers to product placement, and the federal tax on them resembles a sales tax on imposed desires.
Yet, in the house with Bella, who’s an artist, Preble begins to notice glitches in the system that unites fantasy and reality, cracks in the window that separates them: in the house, a fly speaks to him and communicates a dire warning, and, in the first dream that he audits, from 1985, a young Bella (Grace Glowicki) blows on a dandelion—at his desk, removing his helmet, he finds one of its puffs in his teacup. Inside the hyper-realistically vivid dreams, Preble is a spectrally outlined and haloed monochrome observer, but he soon finds Bella’s dreams and his realities intersecting, and vice versa. When some of the products placed in his dreams find their way into hers, she lends a hand, offering him a homemade, chrome-plated, brightly bejewelled helmet that she’d used as a dream shield. Liberated by that device, Preble’s imagination leads him into ever-freer, ever-stranger adventures that definitively shatter the boundaries between fantasy and reality.
Even to describe the phantasmagorical wonders that Audley and Birney unleash, with a combination of techniques, is to risk spoiling the shock of their inspirations. Bella’s adult son, Peter (played by Reed Birney, Albert’s uncle), turns up—and, as if in free association with his name, morphs into a wolf. (Peter’s wife, Martha, and their son, Brian, show up, too, and they’re played by Reed Birney’s real-life wife, Constance Shulman, and their son, Ephraim Birney.) After being viewed by the talking fly in prismatic fly-vision, Preble sees his own face in a mirror as a swarm of writhing maggots; recurring dreams of Bella and Preble in a restaurant feature a waiter that’s a saxophone-playing frog (Albert Birney’s in that suit); Bella and Preble are turned into beets and end up on a plate, observing from within their own dinner. The fly’s warning comes true, and, in the movie’s most wondrous moment, the escape route from a besieged closet leads to a drop from the sky into the ocean and then to a deserted paradise island. There’s a sailing ship staffed by a pair of friendly rats in sailors’ uniforms, and a monster with a ram’s skull and glowing blue eyes (Birney’s in that suit, too), which holds young Bella captive; a Bigfoot-like man covered head to toe in foliage turns up shaggy with strips of videotape. Some effects are achieved with elaborate costumes and sets (including the fancifully decorated house where Birney’s mother and stepfather actually live); others, with C.G.I.; still more, with stop-motion animation; and the last with miniatures, stock footage, and a mix of video and film formats.
As Preble, Audley brings a papery irony to the role of an ordinary man who, as he awakens to the strangeness of his ordinary life, remains something of an observer within it. Audley is one of the hidden protagonists of the past fifteen years of American independent filmmaking. As a director as well as an actor, he was there at the start of the movement of self-implicating, first-person realism that got dubbed mumblecore, with his first feature, “Team Picture,” in which he also stars. (He followed it up with a similar trio of understatedly turbulent romantic dramas, “Holy Land,” “Open Five,” and “Open Five 2.”) Audley has also acted in other directors’ films, and his onscreen presence is among the exemplary ones of both the era and the movement, including in films by young directors who’ve expanded mumblecore into wider genre explorations (Amy Seimetz’s “Sun Don’t Shine”), theatrical rages (Dustin Guy Defa’s “Bad Fever”), and classic-style melodrama (Charles Poekel’s “Christmas, Again”). There’s an inherent theatricality to his sense of reality—to his very presence—that curls inward in his own films and is unleashed with shattering energy in those of others. (He also founded the Web site NoBudge, to showcase independent films that didn’t find other commercial outlets.) Glowicki—the writer, director, and lead actor of the independent film “Tito,” from 2019—has an even more constructed style of performance, which her own film concentrates into impacted energy and which emerges, in “Strawberry Mansion,” in the form of calmly fervent lyricism.
Just as mumblecore has more or less taken over mainstream cinema, by way of the work of such actors and filmmakers as Adam Driver, Greta Gerwig, and Barry Jenkins, so artifices of cinema cultivated far from the personal moods and methods of the genre have come under its sway. The turn to remote genres and tones is partly generational—as filmmakers get older, confession becomes harder and drama becomes more abstract—and partly evolutionary, found in the simple urge to expand one’s own ideas and to advance the art. (Between “Sylvio” and “Strawberry Mansion,” Birney made an animated film, “Tux and Fanny,” that brings a similar hands-on, lo-fi sensibility to an over-professionalized genre.) Though the pivot to fantasy in “Strawberry Mansion” lacks the bracing immediacy of Audley’s earlier films as both a director and actor—and, for that matter, lacks the reflections on art and life that energize “Sylvio”—it takes on the mightiest cinematic challenge of the time: the poisoned media environment in which filmmakers such as Audley and Birney are working. It largely succeeds.
The no-holds-barred, extravagantly playful methods by which Audley and Birney conjure the audacious yet coherent tale of supernatural menaces and splendors are the movie’s prime achievement. Its critical drama of corporatized minds and its romantic one of gothic reverberations remain somewhat on the surface; its fantasies fall short of the furies of hidden desires that the cinematic surrealism of Buñuel brought to life, with simpler methods and riskier clarity. Rather, the film’s low-budget virtuosity comes off as an end in itself—as a vital example of possibilities untapped, as an act of resistance to reclaim fantasy for independent filmmaking, for imagination that pays no rent to the overlords of intellectual property and owes no fealty to the sanctimonious propaganda of their addictive fandom.