Dan Sallitt, The Modest Master, at Anthology
It's difficult to pinpoint exactly why the films of Dan Sallitt have remained such a well-kept secret for the past two decades, poorly distributed and rarely revived, despite a small but enthusiastic following of critics, programmers, and the French director Arnaud Desplechin, who has likened Sallitt to Ingmar Bergman. But it surely has something to do with the fact that Sallitt is an American working in a European idiom, and that he seems oblivious to the prevailing fashions of American indie cinema (from Tarantino to mumblecore) and incapable—on-screen and off—of calling attention to himself. So kudos to Anthology Film Archives for calling that attention for him with an overdue retrospective of Sallitt's small but singular body of work, beginning with a week-long run of his latest feature, The Unspeakable Act.
The taboo that gives the title to Sallitt's perverse, funny, and ultimately profound coming-of-age story is the incestuous desire of 17-year-old Jackie (wonderful newcomer Tallie Medel) for her 18-year-old brother, Matthew (Sky Hirschkron). It's tricky subject matter that Sallitt navigates every bit as skillfully as Louis Malle did in Murmur of the Heart. Jackie's unrequited longing is less a scandal than a long-running private joke shared by the siblings, two precocious intellectuals who enjoy testing each other's limits. Matthew impishly prods Jackie for details of her fantasy, while she tests how much she can disclose without making him squirm—until he decamps for college, and Jackie feels a full-blown crisis coming on. What, after all, is a girl to do when Mr. Right is, morally and ethically speaking, Mr. Wrong?
A onetime film critic for the Los Angeles Reader, Sallitt is an acknowledged student of such directors as Eric Rohmer (to whom The Unspeakable Act is dedicated), Maurice Pialat, and the Japanese master Mikio Naruse. Like theirs, his films are marked by a surface austerity—long takes, a camera that moves only when prompted to—that belies an acute mapping of psychology and emotion. Sallitt's first professional feature, Honeymoon (1998), is another provocative investigation of sexual compatibility (or lack thereof), this one concerning longtime friends who impulsively tie the knot only to find that they may not be as right for each other in bed as they are in most other aspects of their lives.
In All the Ships at Sea (2004), two more ideologically opposed siblings—one a Catholic theologian, the other a refugee from a New Agey cult—engage in a scintillating dialogue about belief and the possibility of transcendence, loosely inspired by William James's The Varieties of Religious Experience. Arguably Sallitt's masterpiece, Ships is rooted in two transcendent performances, by Strawn Bovee and Edith Meeks, Sallitt regulars who have scarcely appeared in other movies, but whose work here outstrips what most movie stars manage over entire careers.
Anthology's series also features an obscurity even by these standards. Produced in 1986 for Los Angeles' pioneering video-art gallery EZTV and rarely if ever screened since, Polly Perverse Strikes Again! is Sallitt's true debut: a feature-length "film" shot on three-quarter-inch analog video and not inaccurately described by its own maker as a cross between Bringing Up Baby and The Mother and the Whore. In this denatured screwball farce, a blowsy, sexually adventurous drifter ("You could get VD just from looking at her") rolls back into the life of her ex-boyfriend and soon wreaks havoc on his current relationship with a prim magazine editor (Bovee). Not least an indelible time capsule of L.A. in the mid-'80s (complete with cameos from former LA Weekly arts editor Tom Christie and film critic Michael Wilmington), Polly Perverse is rife with intruding boom mics and light stands and other telltale signs of a no-budget experiment. Yet the tone is quintessentially Sallitt—men and women scrambling, sometimes successfully, often not, to impose reason on the irrationality of desire.
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