“The city was dirty. And dirt is fertile.” – Jeremiah Moss
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New York City ca. 1976 was dying on the vine. With over a million citizens on welfare and the middle class bolting for the suburbs, draining its tax base, its infrastructure was collapsing. The murder rate doubled that of a decade before, and rape, robbery, and burglary stats dwarfed even that. Bankruptcy, children, was just a default away, with the U.S. President indisposed toward bailing anyone out (FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD). Off-duty police handed out pamphlets at airports titled “Welcome to Fear City.” Garbage rotted in the streets, waiting for striking maintenance workers to claim it. Son of Sam had begun his murderous career. And that was before the blackout.
Partly because of all this, it was also a scene of artistic ferment. Rents were still relatively low, so those who came for the energy and the space to create and were willing to do it on the cheap could make a go of it. Disco found flower here, where hip-hop also took root. Jean-Michel Basquiat was making art on the buildings of Lower Manhattan, with Keith Haring soon to join the mix. Robert Mapplethorpe had proven what a Hasselblad could do, while ex-girlfriend Patti Smith released her fiery first two albums, part of the revolutionary punk scene that included Television, Ramones, the Heartbreakers, Richard Hell, and Suicide, much of it documented in underground filmmaker Amos Poe’s The Blank Generation. Martin Scorsese managed to make noir poetry of the urban hellscape in Taxi Driver, pollinating the first cinematic fleurs du mal of Abel Ferrara. And in 1976 a small group of film-school grads, acting hopefuls, and porn veterans came together to make a low-key paranormal whodunit encompassing lie detectors, gentrification, electrical photography, and sentient plants.
The Kirlian Witness, a Brian De Palma film without De Palma, germinated in a screenwriting workshop where director Jonathan Sarno (no relation, apparently, to contemporary NY erotic filmmaker Joe) met writer Lamar Sanders. Sarno’s script, Sanders tells me, was half finished at the time, and completed by the two; Sanders cast the film then left over disputes, to be brought back later to resolve issues between the actors and director, only to wind up directing portions himself. Back-and-forth over who the murderer should be added to ambiguities inherent in the plot structure, so future wife Victoria added noirish narration to smooth over gaps. The film took an unusually long time to complete after its two-week shoot, but Sanders credits Sarno with hanging in and finishing it and eventually bringing it to market. After a handful of screenings it found a home in VHS rental shops and is more broadly accessible now through streaming and a DVD and novelization (titled The Plants Are Watching) hawked by the director. Sarno made two other undistinguished features before switching to travel videos, Sanders is the former chair of the Tisch School of Art’s film department at NYU, but this first production is a thing in itself.
The Kirlian in the Witness refers to a camera-free photographic process discovered by Russian husband and wife Semyon and Valentina Kirlian. Using a high-voltage charge to impress images on photo plates, the corona effect it achieves was thought to represent auras or “energy fields” but has since been shown to capture simple moisture discharges resulting from the shock. The technique, previously exploited in Ray Danton’s 1975 Psychic Killer, is used here as an investigative tool bringing its heroine, photographer Rilla Hart, in closer contact with the exotic plant whose owner, her sister, has been killed, in hopes of identifying the culprit. Both the process and the idea of plant communication, in addition to the application of polygraph equipment to flora, were derived from Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird’s 1973 nonfiction bestseller The Secret Life of Plants, which Sanders has described as a gimmick to lend the film novelty in a competitive genre environment.
Secret Life’s contention is that plants respond to stimuli beyond sunlight and fertilization and are fully capable of cognition. They are, in the authors’ term, intentional. Though some parts of the premise may be worthy of consideration, it’s unbelievable anyone should take them to the lengths Tompkins and Bird do. Where else can you read such assertions as “we had a man molest, even torture a geranium for several days in a row” and discover that a Japanese couple taught a cactus to count to twenty? According to CIA technician Cleve Backster, who warrants a chapter for having pioneered the electronic monitoring of flora, a plant can, by being wired to a polygraph, identify out of as many as six suspects which one had done violence to a fellow plant, and may react to humans’ thoughts about them from miles away. (He also claims to have been able to detect the pulse of a store-bought egg.) Other such eminences as Edgar Cayce and L. Ron Hubbard are cited, approvingly. The authors relay all this in credulous terms often bordering on cheerleading, relating the interaction of one researcher and his philodendron to the emotions evoked between lovers and allowing as how fertility rites may actually have promoted crop growth. More incredibly, their work was the subject of an eponymous documentary by Oscar-winning screenwriter of The Wild Bunch, Walon Green, in 1979, with a soundtrack by Stevie Wonder. (The book is still in print.) Sarno takes a neutral tone toward the material, which he problematizes in important ways.
There’s a built-in suspension of disbelief going into any fantasy fiction experience. Witness prepares us for the more preposterous elements by kicking off in hardboiled mode, with Rilla’s narration, in silhouette, lit like an interrogation, the projector light behind her creating a Kirlian halo rendering the plot an emanation of her obscure psyche. Here she describes sister Laurie’s return from Scottish New-Age farming commune Findhorn to run a plant shop and set up digs in the SoHo building Rilla and her architect husband Robert have recently let. Laurie meets her end on the rooftop, and when her sister is dissatisfied with detective Lawrence Tierney’s verdict of death by accident she begins sleuthing. By the epilogue two more will be dead and Rilla left a murderess, inspired by visions she attributes to a plant Laurie has assigned mystical significance.
The wild card in all this, interestingly enough, isn’t the plant or even the sister who believes such bunk, but her shop help, Dusty, who wryly calls himself Laurie’s imaginary friend and whom Rilla assumes has something going on with her sister. He’s an enigma and a jack of all trades: plant-care provider, apprentice mystic, warehouse worker, plumber, self-professed poet, part-leprechaun and “Jungian shadow figure,” according to Sanders, in addition to being homeless thanks to the gentrifying movements of Rilla’s ilk. Low on affect, he’s pliable under Laurie’s influence but reptilian in his dealings with the Harts. (Despite his gifts, actor Ted LePlat may stir recollections of another taciturn nature-boy character in another plant-based ’70s genre offering, Joe Dallesandro, in The Gardener, aka Seeds of Evil.) He’s what makes this a New York story. His grievance over having been displaced, as many artists and laborers were by this time, contributes to class resentment, leading to deception, prevarication, and possibly murder.
Possibly. The movie is so layered with ambiguity and obscured motivations, it’s hard to tell. In the first scene proper, Laurie guides Dusty in tuning his mind to her plant’s wavelength, in distinctly seductive terms (“Think where you want to enter.…”); when she rejects him later as he makes a series of awkward passes, this man even her sister had pegged as her lover may be forgiven some confusion. (The Plants Are Watching clarifies her action as inspired by her plant’s reading of Dusty’s nefarious intentions, but your own tolerance for balderdash may leave you unconvinced.) Rilla’s opening monolog, with its tone of detached self-pity (her first words are “If anyone was left holding the bag it would be me”) betrays a questionable viewpoint that grows more complex as the plot unwinds, and plain disturbing on subsequent viewings. Her closing “I need to know more” sounds less affirmative and more like a warning shot once the murk sets in.
Like De Palma, Sarno piles on the dreams and visions with unannounced beginnings and endings till it’s difficult telling whose reality is the prevailing one at any given moment. (The De Palma this film most evokes is, aptly enough, Sisters, with its themes of witnessing, criss-crossing identities, self-imperiling heroines, shifting trust-centers, confusion of reality and the delineation of events on separate visual planes, not to mention their shared New York location. Sarno is not the visual stylist De Palma had made of himself by then, accounting for some missed cues on the audience’s part.) The first time we register this unmooring is when Robert counsels a weekend getaway to help Rilla deal with her loss; she demurs, but soon we see them driving to the countryside anyway, a scene that increases in implausibility as Rilla follows her sister’s ethereal lead to a disturbing revelation involving her husband and Laurie’s corpse. The next thing we see is Rilla waking in their apartment. Later, she rises from bed to find Dusty outside her window and leading her through the labyrinthine night city streets; when the sequence resolves with him constellating her and her sister’s names in a notebook accompanied by a mandragoric plant-man illustration, it reads as a cryptic message from one part of her psyche to the other. Near the end, Sarno pulls off what may be a virtuoso feathering of each character’s dreams within the others’: Dusty lights up a bowl in the warehouse he appears to be squatting in, and his opium reverie enfolds Rilla’s own, real dream; when she wakes to Dusty outside their apartment again and her husband pursues him to the rooftop, where he delivers an oracular spiel on what “terrible gossips” plants are (incriminating Robert), the next sequence has Robert waking alone to TV static. Was this all in the imagination of the architect, whose work it is to house and contain random personalities? Or is Rilla, as photographer, the lens we’re seeing this through?
If that’s the case, it’s a distorted one. She admits early in her narration to having been “sick for a while,” but remains silent on the nature or cause of her illness. When she sees Laurie’s face in a Kirlian shot she took of the plant that supposedly “witnessed” her demise (a glancing reference to Antonioni’s Blow Up) then looks again and it’s gone, we’re aware she’s prone to delusion; that subsequent visions come only after others have suggested them tells us she’s susceptible, at least, like the emulsion her images are impressed on.
The one character we can rely on, maybe, is the most peripheral: oft-mentioned but little-seen Claire. Her name is intentional. Sarno does an effective enough job building suspension of disbelief that the circumstance of her introduction comes as a moment of clarity for the viewer: Rilla meets her in the apartment she’s taken on leaving Robert, whom she suspects of killing her sister; when she tries to demonstrate her plant-monitoring method, the look on Claire’s face is a cue to the audience that we should be questioning her state of mind, too. When Robert tracks his wife down and brings her back home, even she realizes how all this must look by now. Her air of authority and composure affected in the beginning and spotted throughout begins to crack. Her last privileged insight from the plant that “witnessed” Laurie’s death leads to her own crime, by which time we simply can’t believe her anymore and have to wonder, by her closing narration, if this wasn’t all an attempt to justify her own irrational deeds.
None of the principals is exempt from criticism. If Witness has a villain, it’s Robert, whom Rilla – dispassionately – notes has no regard for her photography, is open in his dislike of her sister, and shows no remorse for nearly killing her. A ringer for quintessential New York chronicler Lou Reed, his default affect is contempt. When Laurie has conniptions over Robert’s innocently brushing past one of her plants, her sensitivities for the plant outperform her human understanding and ability to weigh offenses; likewise, despite her humoring attitude toward Dusty in the cassette journals Rilla monitors, her severity and woundedness toward his advance seems similarly disproportionate. If the film reserves sympathy for any of its characters, it’s for Dusty: displaced by the changing city at the whims of a new elite and frustrated by his own limitations as he attempts to rise among them, he’s collateral damage. Thinking himself supernaturally gifted at reading people, as Laurie has tried to teach him to read plants, he’s often wrong and fatefully out of his element.
The movie’s three centerpieces involve him. First is his dissertation to Rilla, on being engaged to fix her plumbing – a double entendre fit for separate analysis – concerning his artistic frustration and weariness working two jobs yet still seeing the ends moving apart. His speech is steeped in psychological resonance: he’s describing Rilla’s own mental fraying and failure to achieve an inner life as much as anyone’s. Though he often comes off as cloying and attempting to “play” people, his sharing here is met with stony silence; Rilla is already on her guard against him. If she’s right and he’s the culprit, she’s protecting herself; if she’s wrong, and there’s every chance she could be, he may as well be addressing a rhododendron. When the plant-rigged polygraph jumps in response to his gesture toward her, she’s too alienated from her own affect to understand it’s a register of her emotional impulse, not the ficus’s. (In some ways the film is a precursor to Philip Kaufman’s Frisco-set Invasion of the Body Snatchers remake, filmed a year later but released a year before, where human beings are replaced by intergalactic seed-pods.).
Next comes his colloquy with Robert, after Rilla abandons him in a panic. As in an earlier confrontation between the two in a bar after Laurie’s murder, Dusty is especially cagey with Robert, thinking he knows the score when he’s a page or two short on sheet music. In what plays at first like a character quirk but comes clearer once we deduce Dusty’s homelessness, Robert finds him taking a bath in the fixture he’s come to repair, his emergence half-wet from the w.c. a trickster sprung from his backroom womb to open up the pipes for both Harts. (In his vagrancy, he suggests a rootless piece of psychic material drifted into awareness. His effect on the tenants is an underground take on Terence Stamp’s upsetting of the bourgeoisie in Pasolini’s Teorema, lending color to the way we read his character.) As with Rilla, when he holds forth on his labors the message falls on deaf ears; while Robert recognizes him from the bar but not from his job across the street, he’s just another worker whose place of employment will be gone soon as the city’s warehouses and mom-and-pop shops make way for more banks, more condos, and more suburban chain stores. “I know what you’ve done” he threatens in a last-ditch attempt at power play, and even tries to dismiss Robert from his own domicile, but he’s no match for the latter’s white-collar cunning. The bigger bully drives him out, but the man, like his accusations, won’t stay tamped down long.
Exactly what Dusty is after isn’t clear. He never tries to blackmail Robert, so it isn’t money. He clearly wants to be part of their club, so it may be status – more likely, simple acceptance. There’s the possibility Laurie and Rilla are right and he’s a creep (though a peculiarly timid one), though their touchiness and air of superiority leave room for doubt. (Try the scene where Laurie blows off a customer for the offense of wanting to buy a plant in her plant store for size. The film’s irony is that neither woman, for all their heightened sensitivity to flora, is attuned to the inner life of the people around them.) Dusty’s last big scene takes place on the rooftop, where he lures Robert away like a skid-row Fantomas. With the full moon behind him where he perches high above Robert putting his boots on, he’s Joe Buck come back after the death of Ratso Rizzo fired up and ready to give one last go at staking that claim he’d come here for. Rilla overhears his incrimination of her husband – Dusty was on the roof that night and witnessed his scuffle with Laurie – and leaves Robert, based on the revelation. But when her next vision confirms Dusty’s allegation, is it real, or has he “planted” the concept there?
Rilla’s shift from electroencephalographs to Kirlian photography and then outright channeling when she fails to find what she’s looking for with each previous method draws their effectiveness into question. She’s using these devices to validate her preconceptions, but are her preconceptions wrong? There’s an emerging discipline known as Affect Theory, which may be the next comprehensive organizing principle after psychology. Its focus is less on history and memory – the occult – and more on the sudden, immediate, emotional, tactile, and consequential. Compare this with Laurie’s study of plant sensations: the most automatic level of cognition; feelings. As the character who brings disaffected Rilla into communion with the sensitive world, Laurie is the feeling-self she claims in her narration to have grown distant from. (In what may have been a rethink, the novelization gives their family name as “Hart,” as opposed to Rilla’s married name.) Her death means her sister has lost a part of herself, Rilla’s investigation an attempt to understand what that was and why.
If the film is a supernatural whodunit, that means a spiritual crime has been committed; if Laurie registers offense on the part of her plants, that means trauma has been inflicted on the most basic level. The burning cigarette at the center of Rilla’s silhouette is echoed in her examination of a Kirlian she took of Robert’s fingerprint; she deduces the redness within as anger at heart, which she apparently shares. Her husband’s disdain for her work is as for the feminine perspective, as femininity itself, reminding us that the women’s movement was also in flower at the time; much of the sisters’ paranoia is well-placed, as-yet unidentified gender resentment much like Dusty’s class. Rilla’s closing abandonment of the city and what it/Robert had made of her for Findhorn is a feminist rejection of that monolithic social structure her husband and others had wrought.
Which brings us back to Lawrence Tierney as the detective. His screen time here is so negligible he seems almost dropped in for name recognition alone. Still: it’s Lawrence Tierney. If the filmmakers were going for hardboiled bona fides they could hardly do better than the star of Born to Kill and The Devil Thumbs a Ride, whose offscreen arrests for drunkenness and brawling put him in a league of his own. So we mull his role. (“Think where you want to enter.…”) As the evidence-based detective who declines to apprehend anyone, he stands in contrast to Laurie, who apprehends all things without dint of physical evidence. (That their first names are basically the same is gravy.) He is the New York of 1976. Rilla, who placed herself in opposition to him, is the new, gentrifying city; her sister, who traffics between there and Findhorn, the catalyst for its transformation. There’s a movement away from gritty realism toward a more organic mindset; also a less positive shift, toward outright fantasy. (Think in terms of Times Square, which used to be home to grindhouse movie theaters and dirty-book stores and whose rehabilitation in ensuing years has been called Disneyfication.)
As documented in Jeremiah Moss’s heartbreaking book and blog Vanishing New York, the city’s retreat from the brink was at least as complicated as Witness’s vegetable politics. While it succeeded in lifting itself from fiscal anarchy, it was at the cost of, in Moss’s words, “the working class, the people of color, homosexuals, artists, socialists and other undesirables” and to the benefit of corporations and developers in the service of tourists, entrepreneurs, and real-estate developers. “From 2004 to 2014,” Moss says, “the average commercial rent in the city increased 34%. Some storefront rents shot from $4,000 to $40,000 per month, making it impossible for any business but a corporate chain or a bank to exist.” Under Mayor Ed Koch, 2,300 small businesses a month closed, 10,000 under Michael Bloomberg. Landlords wanted retail chains that didn’t always come, leaving ghost blocks of “high-rent blight.” What had started as a crisis in social organization became a party for profiteers to whom the lowly and alien were a nuisance to be priced out, evicted, and in many cases incarcerated from sight as the city shifted its focus from the public good to that of the market, auctioning community garden lots for development. (Rudy Giuliani to the city: “Welcome to the era after communism.”) Fauxstalgia saw landmarks closed and refurbished, with some décor and other nods to the past retained but with astronomical pricing for the clientele that could afford it; a high-end fashion store replaced punk haven CBGB, but you could buy $1,500 safety-pin purses and Sid Vicious pencils at the MoMA gift shop. In order to save its name, the city had lost its soul. Even the expansion of Sanders’ NYU saw the demolition of Edgar Allan Poe’s house in the year 2000.
The cumulative effect of all these closings as a lost way of life is recognizing how larger society has changed from unique and individual to mass and characterless: Autotune America. Is it a tragedy that New York City today isn’t NYC ca. 1976, or a triumph that it’s even still standing? Friends and relatives who’ve lived in the city post-“blandalism” (as Moss puts it) never saw the decay, only a city diverse, exciting, alive – unlike the gormless suburbs they came from – where David Bowie, Jerry Seinfeld, Jennifer Lawrence, and Scarlett Johansson lived and hung out – the home of the financial industry, Paper of Record, and publishing seat of the country. I’m not qualified to render judgment, but I do have my affinities. There’s such a thing as psychological gentrification, a colonization of the mind by a form of sophistication barren of vivifying genius but driven by self-inflation, survival instinct, and a will to construct more than create. The film is a record of that too, witness to trauma and a document of its spiritual aftereffect. If the city is a mind, furrowed by buildings like the brain is by its folds and crevices, and there’s decay there, significant decay, maybe the idea isn’t urban renewal after all; maybe we need to look outside for answers.
Ever since the World Trade Center towers came down and we “all” became New Yorkers, I’ve had a hard time seeing through mystical, much less magical lenses. (How quickly a cadre of religious lamebrains demolished Kubrick’s carefully constructed vision of a transcendent millennium. Or, as Johnny Rotten put it, “I don’t believe illusions ’cos too much is rrrrreal.”) The more I read of affect theory, with its emphasis on “shimmering” (think of the zing-y alarms Rilla picks up from her plant-familiars near the end of her story), “in-between-ness,” and “perpetual becoming,” the more frustrated I get in a time so caught up in its own convulsion of affect. I had built a worldview based on psychology, but there’s no explaining where people’s heads are at anymore. (Trump Tower SoHo was completed in 2008 and de-branded in 2017. May it be brought to ground and the rubble sown with salt.) My plant-sense tells me there’s something about this affect thing, so that’s where I’m going to be directing a lot of my study-time now. I can’t say if it’s city or soil, but like Rilla, I need to know more.
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All images are screenshots from the film’s DVD.