A reluctant genre force who admits his pictures start out as regular films but turn into horror movies much the same way he describes the process of filmmaking itself as “traumatic,” Ti West imbues his work with a sense of futility that must come from lived experience. No one gets what they want in a West film, and those that try only shepherd their co-conspirators to disaster.
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A woman, dressed in red, stands up from the toilet and looks down in dismay. She heads up a set of stairs and searches the kitchen till she finds an item she takes back with her to the bathroom, where she begins plunging away at the woeful bowl. After a few pumps she regards its contents again before flushing, and, like it or not, we finally see what she sees there. It’s the bloody evidence of what the title immediately informs us is a “Miscarriage,” writer-director Ti West’s minute-long contribution to the 2012 anthology film The ABC’s of Death.
Pregnancy, barrenness, stillbirth, virgin birth, abortion, and, yes, miscarriage of real and metaphorical dimensions inform the independent filmmaker’s work, much of it organized around current politics as well as his own avoidance of, flirtation with, and deep regrets around engagement with the studio mainstream. A reluctant genre force who admits his pictures start out as regular films but turn into horror movies much the same way he describes the process of filmmaking itself as “traumatic,” West imbues his work with a sense of futility that must come from lived experience. No one gets what they want in a West film, and those that try only shepherd their co-conspirators to disaster.
As a 35-year-old who graduated film school in 2001 America, West is a product of the new millennium, making entertainments with and for a cohort come of age in the shadow of the World Trade Center attacks and his country’s subsequent march into catastrophe in the wars in the Mideast. Accordingly, his characters continually find themselves in the middle of others’ plots and plans for their lives only made worse by their efforts to assert their agency and independence from their malefactors. Unlike their closest analogs in the ’70s whose conspiracies were part of some vast and sophisticated governmental or business network (The Fury; The Parallax View), West’s plotters are more often clumsy and fallible nobodies whose selfish and myopic programs nevertheless succeed in bringing great harm. Like the soil it grows out of, his is the cinema of unintended consequences, but consequences just as sure.
For this very personal filmmaker, who peppers his work with autobiographical settings and character quirks, probably the most formative professional experience was his attempt at mainstream crossover writing and directing Cabin Fever 2: Spring Fever for second-string major Lionsgate. Shot in 2007, the film was taken out of his hands and Alan Smithee’d into unrecognizability as a West work before being released direct to video two years later; were it not for his non-Directors Guild status, it would have been credited with this nom de personne instead of his own. What remains is a catalog of elements conspicuously absent from most West: crass humor, obnoxious characters, gratuitous violence, sexuality … and a fast pace. (Some of this may have been inherent in West’s original screenplay, which he’s described as aspiring to the character of a Paul Bartel or John Waters film from the ’80s. In which case, the miscalculation setting the whole fiendish plot into motion may have been his own.)
Growing out of this sense of a rigged game is the theological implication signaled by the pun in the title of his student film, “Prey.” The short, included on the DVD of his first feature, The Roost (2005), consists of little other than a pair of young men alone in a snowy wood being pursued by a wolf-like creature who eventually claims them both. It’s an interesting companion to the other film, which also involves a clutch of twentysomethings stranded in the country being picked off by an animal force, there augmented by a revenant plague that may have nothing to do with the original threat at all. (West’s films are full of disconnected cause and effect, and the disorientation this breeds in his protagonists.) The notion of an ordering deity, reflected in his work by the absence of true parental units (House of the Devil and The Sacrament replace them with a half-human “Mother” and Jim Jones-y “Father,” respectively) either never enters the equation or posits Him as problematic in His indifference, if not malevolent in the extreme. Each feature strays consecutively further from the supernatural, leaving Sacrament (2013), his most recent release, governed only by human beings – misguided, screw-loose human beings.
West grounds each film in reality, so that their breaks from everyday life serve to disorient the viewer as much as his characters. Trigger Man (2007), about a trio of city dwellers truly in the woods on their first hunting expedition gradually mowed down by an unseen force, is headed by the message “Inspired by actual events”; The Innkeepers (2011) – a pair of ghost-hunting nerds in search of a soul mate – takes place in the real-life Yankee Pedlar Inn and trades on its (made-up) history of hauntings; Sacrament reenacts, in fictional form, the Jonestown massacre as seen through the lens of a VICE documentary; even the demonic-conception House of the Devil (2009) leads off with statistics on America’s belief in satanic cults. Couple this with his autobiographical propensities, and you’re being invited to regard each as a personal statement on both the state of the world and his own vulnerable, though unbowed, psyche.
Take The Roost. Its main story, of a quartet of travelers thrown off course on their way to a friend’s wedding (all Wests are appointments with destinies never met) and into a barn infested with homicidal bats that escape to spread greater havoc, is bookended by a local-broadcast creepshow host’s intro/outro and one conspicuous interruption that recontextualizes the ostensible feature into mind-bending meta-reality. This Nightmare Theatre wraparound (in anachronistic black and white) is dated ©1980, the year of West’s birth, recontexualizing the entire enterprise as an allegory of the director’s unleashing on the world. Given that, the viewer is likely to see the satanic impregnation (as well as ’80s setting) of Devil as another self-mythologizing moment for the otherwise mild-mannered filmmaker, and the impending birth of the Sacrament journalist’s first child as a form of self-regeneration.
Besides those “factual” setups, West creates a sense of immediacy by having characters address a series of cameras-within-the-camera. This includes his most perfectly realized work, “Second Honeymoon,” his addition to the found-footage anthology V/H/S (2012): The lens acts as mirror for these figures as well as, one assumes, the director. (His earlier hunter-become-the-hunted drama has one character call its own eventual Last Man Standing, who films all the action, their “Trigger Man” – shortly before getting “shot” in both senses of the term; the film’s actual cinematographer is, of course, West himself.) The thing about “Honeymoon,” though, which presents itself as a home-movie account of its two main characters’ Wild West (think about that last one) road trip overshadowed by a mysterious third party, is that when one of them talks to the camera it’s with sincerity, while the other may be using it to both mock the other and as a setup for a cruel and unexpected denouement. The camera is an instrument of power, and the viewer is never certain if the director is using that power for good or evil. Sensibly, neither is he.
West is a careful craftsman, as reflected in the layering of details in his scripts (no line of dialog is without import, no gesture without resonance) as well as his use of timelines or other ordering devices to frame and contain his narratives. Sometimes that ordering functions as a guide to the spectator, keeping events grounded in temporal reality, other times seeming like the effort of a greater consciousness to maintain composure when situations get out of control. And out of control they do get, for West’s fame rests in his mastery of the slow burn, so that when hell finally breaks loose it is most convincingly all hell, and no one is capable of stopping it. Still, and even at that, his stories remain Shaggy Dogs whose payoff is less than their telling; they come together mainly in the thinking and talking about them afterward. The viewer is required to do his own work assembling the pieces as deliberately as West has done for them.
It’s strangely fitting, then, that his characters consistently fail to make connections, between events and each other. One person’s dead mobile battery means isolation for everyone in Roost; Trigger Man’s deep woods adventurers are left perilously out of service, as are the young men in “Prey;” good luck, too, to the video journalists who don’t even know what off-the-grid country they’re in in Sacrament, while Innkeeper Claire’s attempts to contact the spirit world are a metaphor for her clumsy stabs at romance with her equally hopeless ghost-hunting partner; House of the Devil’s heroine Samantha’s repeated efforts to contact her girlfriend come to naught for a very good reason: her friend’s been shot dead. Sam’s nightmare is grounded in her inability to correlate elements of her everyday life, the film we’re seeing her fantasy reconstruction of events that have slipped her threshold of awareness. Roost’s Last Man has a moment of clarity not afforded Sam when he pokes the carcass of a creature he (and we) had assumed was the cause of the zombie plague and notes, plainly, “It’s just a bat” – nothing supernatural at all. It’s like a fictional character’s suddenly achieving self-awareness, realizing everything about it is a prop.
For movies that trade so much on birth imagery, there’s surprisingly little sexuality – much less romance – on hand. Trigger Man’s videographer is the only lead in the canon who has a lover, and she is out of touch, as is Sacrament’s pregnant wife back home. Roost’s wayfarers never make their friend’s wedding – which one among them says she can’t see happening in the first place – the same way the film’s Host vehemently rejects any concept of marital bliss. That “Second Honeymoon” turns homicidally bad, its title a mockery of its male lead’s good intentions; Innkeepers’ supposed hauntings are centered on a vengeful bride left in the lurch, its one touch of sentimentality resolving in suicide. Also missing is a sense of heroism, the closest thing so far appearing only in his latest – Sacrament’s cameraman, Jake. Jake is played by fellow indie filmmaker Joe Swanberg, whose recent experience becoming a dad (and whose wife and daughter cameo here) the film plays out in subtext, his occupation a suggestion of film, or filming, as a form of rescue for the director. Like many in West’s world, his motive force is less superhuman will than it is simple friendship, and survival.
In this, as in other respects, the forebear West most closely approximates is George Romero, whose Night of the Living Dead is the only film directly cited in a West vehicle. What the two directors’ works share most, though, is a worldview either shaped by or at least in accordance with behavioral scientist and novelist B. F. Skinner, whose Beyond Freedom and Dignity is conspicuously displayed in Romero’s Martin (1978). Skinner’s thesis was that social movements hadn’t succeeded in breeding out the worst in humanity; religion certainly hadn’t; genetics was too young a science to offer a concrete program. Only behavioral modification and conditioning could hope to engineer a future liberated from the depredations of agency and free will. The world he constructs is not one of fates or archetypes but of reactions to contingencies – circumstances that can be changed or modified to elicit preferable behaviors. His Skinner boxes (he preferred the term “operant chambers”) were models of this kind of environmental reinforcement, the commune organized by Sacrament’s benevolent despot “Father” not too far from Skinner’s Walden Two, on which novel West’s film seems partly structured.
Though the apparently egalitarian filmmaker would no doubt differ with precepts at the heart of Skinner’s ideology (Sacrament’s outcome would indicate as much), his plots nevertheless are operant chambers of his own device, or Thorndike puzzle boxes of the type Skinner modeled his environments on, where characters scramble from one rigged predicament to another either punished or rewarded for each haphazard stab they take at a way out, always with the sense that someone else is controlling the narrative. The Roost’s Host, for example, who at one point stops the film in order to redirect the main character’s actions, functions as a Skinnerian behavioral scientist – which goes a ways in explaining the curious shots in that film-within staged like surveillance video where no such cameras should be. It’s the characters’ lack of awareness of this grand design that dooms them to failure, and it’s ultimately writer-director West who organizes these conundrums.
There’s a definite game afoot in each picture, then, where the ultimate aim of the manipulator is to manifest power over his audience. This is why The Sacrament, not by any measure his best film, is the clearest lens onto what a West set must be like, as the actual film set is a major character in the production. Ostensibly constructed by the members of Father’s cult, it was in fact built from the ground up by West’s loyal designer Jade Healy, suggesting the drama as an analog for the circumstances of its production, with West the charismatic head of the commune and all his minions his cast and crew. The VICE reporters are drawn here by their friend’s receipt of a letter from his sister inside the cult, which they later discover to have been part of a scheme to extort money from the sibs’ rich parents; the village, called Eden Parish, is a stand-in for the co-operative ensemble and the filmmaking collective many of them are a part of. (It’s also a microcosm for America in the new millennium – a sign above the pavilion parrots the Statue of Liberty inscription – its people lured away into yet another jungle.) It could as easily represent the studio system West had been burned by once – reconstructed here, as in a dream, in order to imaginatively gain mastery over it.
House of the Devil’s Sam is conned via a babysitting gig into incubating Satan’s child. (Both Sacrament’s expectant main character and the hoodwinked hubby of “Second Honeymoon” share her name.) It’s partly an allegory for America’s fraudulent seduction into war in Iraq, partly the appropriation and abomination of West’s “baby” in the aftermath of the abortion that was Cabin Fever 2 (the latter featuring its own miscarriage scene). Sacrament plays like an apologia to everyone involved in that cinematic debacle, over which West has advertised a sense of responsibility. The new life this Sam’s wife is gestating will be the product of this crucible, its title indicating a cleansing via conflagration. When Sam and Jake copter out of that compound in the end, it provides an overview on the burning past and the collective Eden and womb they can no longer be a part of.
Sacrament’s last shot figures Jake turning the camera on himself, a confession of complicity in the events recorded. In a Valley of Violence – Ti’s reengagement with mainstream filmmaking and his first true Western, to be released later this year – involves a character returning to a similar enclave, to exact revenge.
This belly might bear a monster yet.
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Note: All images are screenshots.