Thursday, December 29, 2011


Trance aka The Eternal Kiss of the Mummy, aka The Eternal (1998) 
Dir. Michael Almereyda
Starring Alison Elliot, Jared Harris, Christopher Walken, cameo by Jason Miller
During the late 90’s and Early 2000s, I had the great honor and privilege of serving with distinction in that most noble of all professions, clerk at an independent video store. That job may have been more independently instructive to my future than any other single incident in my life, and of course dramatically helped shape the breadth and depth of my film knowledge. It was a fantastic time to be in the business, because screeners – free copies of films which had not yet been made available to the public – were still common (before video piracy threatened the very foundation of a free society etc, etc.). We’d get between 5 and 15 free copies of movies per week to review and see if we wanted to purchase them. Some of these were big studio films which we, by all rights, ought to have made a decision on already, but that was all well and good. The real excitement, thought, was the onslaught of weird indie fare put out by smaller studios. This was the last days of Cannon video; Orion video; United Artists; Triton; Lion’s Gate. They were all trying to capitalize on the lucrative video market with cheapie genre titles. Heady times.

It’s funny to think about, but until Tarantino made RESOVOIR DOGS and Kevin Smith made CLERKS, there weren’t a lot of dorky amateurs making hip genre-friendly indie films. Studios kept their B-movie factories cranking, and that was were most genre fare emerged. But with the advent of those two films it suddenly seemed possible to more or less bypass the studio system altogether and make your own films. Throw some cash together from private sources, hire your friends as actors, put on a show. Out of this rich stew of new talent came a flood of aggressively amateurish dream projects which might have had a very minor theatrical or festival release somewhere but mostly went straight to video. And I watched ‘em

These bold pioneers quickly proved that studio films did not have a monopoly on sucking. The new wave of indie films were shot for cheap, they were generally ugly, confusing, poorly acted, and rife with pretensions of daring but deficient in skill to back it up. You know what I mean. Shit like THE MINER MASSACRE, MURDER 101, TRUTH OR CONSEQUENCES NM, THINGS TO DO IN DENVER WHEN YOU’RE DEAD. Many painfully attempted to imitate the hip patois of Tarantino and Smith’s films. Many failed disastrously. Most are at best fitfully interesting, and at worst unwatchable.

But. They were also kind of labors of love. Young people trying to do something daring and unique that they couldn’t sell in the studio system. Interesting ideas by people not talented enough to pull them off. In other words, genre buff catnip. You know somewhere deep inside that you’re going to have to grind through dozens, maybe hundreds, to find one which even qualifies as frustrating. But something compels you to try anyway. Maybe because you’re a stoned teenager without a girlfriend, who knows, just guessing.

Anyway, TRANCE AKA THE ETERNAL AKA THE ETERNAL KISS OF THE MUMMY (renamed several times for video release in the hopes of tricking innocent civilians into thinking it was something they’d be even remotely interested in) fits that category pretty well in most places. From the late 90s (1998) released by a tiny studio called “Cinema Club” (which, let’s be honest, sounds like a mob front), awkwardly paced, amateurishly shot and lit, and replete with the kind of stunning bad judgment which undoubtedly seemed daring to young artists free from the watchful eye of studio suits who might know better.

TRANCE AKA THE ETERNAL AKA THE ETERNAL KISS OF THE MUMMY is slightly different from others in that field because the guy making it should also have known better. Michael Almereyda already had a good bit of experience under his belt, writing unused scripts for David Lynch and TOTAL RECALL and directing the excellent low-budget vampire softcore nightmare NADJA. This film represents a significant step back in terms of quality, but it does have some goofy charms.

The plot concerns New York socialites Nora and Jim (Allison Elliot and Jared Harris) who are obviously doing well for themselves despite the fact that they’re stunningly low-functioning drunks. They head to Ireland in order to dry out when Nora falls and hits her head (also they’re parents of a young kid, but no one seems too concerned about that).

They head out to the big scary Irish house owned by Nora’s Great- Aunt, and populated by a creepy 11-year-old servant girl and a robe-wearing Christopher Walken, Nora's uncle. Well, they don’t really dry out too well; they’re mostly in varying states of drunkenness the whole movie (which seems to have been sponsored by Jameson’s Irish Whiskey. Not only are they constantly drinking it and commenting on how good it is, it turns out their Great Aunt has like 100 cases of it in her basement, which, I shit you not, they will eventually use to try and get the evil reincarnated “mummy” drunk. More on that later). In a movie which was either worse or better, the alcoholic angle would probably have something to do with something. Here, it just kind of happens without comment or impact on the plot.

This is exactly the kind of thing which gives it that distinct 90s-indie-film vibe. It’s the sort of thing you could never put in a studio movie, and for reasons which I hope are fairly obvious. But its easy to imagine the filmmakers going, “We should make them just terrible, drunken parents and never have it go anywhere at all! Wouldn’t that be great?” and somewhere along the line “tee hee, wouldn’t that be great??” turned into the actual film, where it just sort of sits there, making everyone feel awkward like the only drunk guy at the wedding (he’s drunk on Jameson, I bet).

Speaking of weddings, this is the only movie I’m aware of which has an occasionally Irish Christopher Walken in love with the desiccated corpse of a ancient immortal pagan tribal leader which he keeps in a bathtub in his basement, is one thing I noticed. Walken is on weirdo autopilot here, letting his nifty pentagonal octogonal rose-colored glasses do most of the acting, but he’s still the most interesting thing anywhere in sight. Every fifth line or so he’ll even throw in a couple of words in an Irish accent in what I'm assuming is an homage to Peter Cushing's German in SHOCK WAVES. His wandering Walken cadence is in such strong effect here that he can actually be a little hard to understand. He has a long bit of exposition which is boldly unbound by the usual rules of American English tonal inflections, and after a while it looses so much focus that you forget about the exposition and just get lost in the oddly soothing waves of abstract, formless quasi-Irish Walkenisms.
Like most of this film’s ilk, it’s painfully clear they could only afford their one actual star for a day or so and hence he’s pretty much just awkwardly shoehorned in there as a minor side character. Notice how I keep coming back to awkwardly?

Yeah, the whole thing is pretty awkward. There’s a scene near the climax where a charming Irishman tries to seduce our heroine to the sultry tones of… Stiff Little Finger’s cover of Marley’s immortal “Johnny Was.” Admittedly a great song (and on vinyl, too!), but it would be difficult to find anything less sexy outside of a Captain Beefheart album. If it were possible to seduce women with the dulcet tones of the 70’s Irish punk rock, I wouldn’t have time to write this blog. So it just sits there, self-consciously hip but totally failing to work on any actual artistic level. Which pretty much sums up the preponderance of films of this sort.

I do fundamentally like the idea behind this one, though. It’s a unique idea for a monster movie. There’s no trance, no mummy, and while there is a kiss it’s pretty brief. But I guess SORT OF POSSESSED : BRIEF KISS OF THE DRUNKEN IRISH MOM didn’t market test as well. Basically, the villain here is an ancient immortal druid priestess who died temporarily and got tossed in a bog (preserving her body, sort of like a mummy, I’ll give them that). Not too many mummified druid movies, so it’s always nice to have another.

The body’s respectably icky, but we only see it in the bathtub – the rest of the time, its just our drunken heroine being halfway possessed. There’s your typical struggle over who gets control over the body, but it’s made a little less interesting because the mom’s such an irritating character anyway and the priestess actually seems like kind of an improvement. She does kill a few people (including one with the shattered pieces of a vinyl record, awesome, although done better in that episode of the X-Files Stephen King wrote) but mostly she just kind of wanders around trying to get her bearings. Not especially cinematic. More interesting is the weird little servant (slave?) girl they have in the house who seems to be supernaturally aware of where people are and what they need. So of course it goes without saying that nothing comes of it. It does get enjoyably ludicrous towards the end. My memory is a bit fuzzy but Jared Harris definitely tries to trick the mummy thing into getting drunk on Jameson and sexy dancing as a means of distracting it, and then bonks her over the head with the bottle, which in my opinion is not a very gentlemanly thing to do.

If this seems like a disjointed review which randomly picks at various unrelated things and didn’t even get to the plot until 1,271 words in, I can’t really argue otherwise. But I would like to point out that its reflective of this style of movie. If I had an editor and a paying public, I could never get away with writing about obscure and much-derided indie DTV horror films from the 90s, and even if I did I would have to focus and write something concise and penetrating. Since I don’t, I can indulge myself and write semi-coherent rambles which are mostly for my own benefit and my own interest in exploring weird ideas that don’t have much traction with anyone else. All well and good, but it makes you remember that there’s often a good reason that artists have editors and write with their readers in mind.

Artists complain about the suits ruining their vision, and no doubt that's often the case. But to pull off something as complex as a full-length feature on just one person’s vision – well, you gotta have a lot more vision than most people do to make it work. You gotta be able to take that vision and hone it, focus it.You and the people working with you need to have mastery of the tools it takes to visually and narratively communicate that vision. You have to get it out of your own head and into the head of the person watching. I'm convinced director Almereyda had something cool in his head – its a shame he wasn't able to communicate it to me. But for a film about a bunch of stumbling, irresponsible drunks trying to keep control of their bodies from being possessed by a far more powerful, amoral entity I guess it may work as a suitable metaphor for the film culture of it's time. If the young indie film community could get through its awkward teenagers years and go on to make the kind of excellent work we frequently see today, maybe there's hope for these drunken possessed neglectful parents and their goofy ginger kid as well.

This review is dedicated to Patrick McConnell, who loaned me his VHS copy of this film which he apparently paid real US currency for at some point in his younger, wilder days.


  1. "...there’s often a good reason that artists have editors and write with their readers in mind." That's a debate I feel like Dan and I have a lot. Or, maybe a debate where we're actually expressing similar views, but seem to argue about them a lot? Dan (to put words in his mouth) always brings up the fact that art can be made intentionally (and legitimately) impenetrable, that want to play around with form or aesthetics, but not communicate any sort of meaning beyond the form itself. I get that, but disagree with the fact that it means it's "not communicating anything"- if form is its sole meaning, then it's still communicating that. And the audience should be able to get that- look at it and go "ahh, (s)he's playing around with form. That's the meaning." If something truly doesn't communicate anything to the audience, then that's the difference between art therapy and art. It irks me when people say "I only write/paint/make films/choreograph interpretive dance for an all-emu cast for ME, not what some audience thinks" but then have some sort of stake in other people liking it or accepting it, or being taken seriously in their art. I had a professor say something in grad school that's stuck with me, along the lines of "Once a poem is published, it ceases to be yours, and you have to let go of any attachment you may have to the meaning you intended for it: it becomes whatever it means to each person who reads it.” Basically, if you make something to be consumed by others, it becomes nothing BUT what it communicates. Anyway, this was a long-ass comment only tangentially related to the movie in question. But “SORT OF POSSESSED : BRIEF KISS OF THE DRUNKEN IRISH MOM”? Now that's the type of movie I'd watch.

  2. Well, based on that argument, I'm inclined to agree with Shenan -- all art has meaning, it's just that it's not always communicating a specific "message." i think a lot of art movie fans struggled with that on this year's "Drive," actually, which is pretty straightforward about its story but somewhat nebulous about what it's actually getting at, if anything (my inclination is to think any hidden message is a distant second to it's intent to entertain, albeit in an unusual style.)

    But as to something even more opaque (perhaps a Dadaist film of brightly colored squares and circles, Stan Brakhage's "MOTHLIGHT" or Jean Claude Van Damme's DOUBLE TEAM) -- here the films are willfully uncommunicative as to narrative or meaning, and (particularly in the case of Dada art) are even possibly disinterested in postmodern art theory playfulness. They might truly be said to be purely aesthetic in composition, but as an artistic medium at its most basic level, it can hardly help but communicate SOME level of purpose to a viewer.

    I'm rather of the opinion that any created art which is showed to someone other than its creator (and possibly even then) necessarily entails some degree of human interaction and hence requires the viewer to actively interpret the art and its meaning. I'm not sure humans are capable of having interactions with no implied meaning of any kind. I wonder, though, if a viewer were told a piece of art was created randomly by a machine before they viewed it, if they might not be able to interpret it in a purely aesthetic way and divorce their experience of the art from any sort of content.

    If that were true, it would suggest that our relationship with art fundamentally changes when we remove our sense that the art is a communication between humans. And if that is indeed the case, it would likely be possible for a person to train himself or herself to interpret human art in this context as well. So that's interesting.

    Anyway, maybe we can convince them to do the DRUNKEN IRISH MOM sequel now that Jared Harris is a big time Hollywood movie star.

  3. Or have a both a human and a machine make DRUNKEN IRISH MOM and see which one people like more. And I assume we're talking about SORT OF POSSESSED: BRIEF KISS OF THE DRUNKEN IRISH MOM, and that you're not just referring here to TRANCE in abbreviation as DRUNKEN IRISH MOM and talking about its potential sequel. It needs to be the former, or else, eh.

  4. Oh but, thinking about it now, I do have to defend Dan's argument a little bit, since you seemed to agree with me and not him (see what I mean when I say we're really saying the same thing, but we're each thinking we're having a different argument than the other does?). I think both he and I realized that art HAS to communicate something, if it is made by one human and viewed by another. Dan thought I was saying "it has to have a thematic message that is its meaning," and argued that form could be meaning (not what I meant-but I agree with him). And I was trying to say that no matter what the artist intended, if the audience fails to get ANYTHING out of the art (even form as meaning), then it has failed its primary purpose: to communicate (even if what it communicates is something different than the original intention, or isn't anything larger than itself).

  5. I guess my basic assertion is that art is fundamentally communication of some idea on some level and can hardly fail to communicate SOME kind of thought or abstract feeling, however undefined (particularly when we take into account that the receiver of the art is also an active interpreter). So I'd agree with the both of you (apparently) and can't really imagine any art which would be completely noncommunicative, outside the possibility of randomly generated computer art or something made by Michael Bay. And even then, only if no one ever saw it.

  6. I guess...not to beat this horse to death but I've definitely seen art that didn't make me personally feel or think any certain thing, and from which I couldn't ascertain what the artist may have been feeling or thinking or intending him/herself, or intending/hoping for me to feel or think. Maybe I could have stretched it to guess what was being communicated, but one guess might as well have been just as good as another, because I seriously could not get it. But then, I could just be a [that word for people who don't understand great art that I'm totally blanking on, even after scouring the thesaurus, but I think it ends in "ite"]

  7. No one will probably even see this at this point, but I just happened to see this convo and thought I'd chime in.

    If I recall correctly, the discussion first came up when we were talking about your poetry, and you said something about poetry needing to tell some sort of story or communicate some sort of relatable message. So I made my argument, as I often do with films, that things like narrative coherency and clear messages are all fine and good, but not necessary in the way that so many people pretend they are.

    Certainly, it would be hard for me to argue that art can communicate "nothing." (Actually, now that we've said it, I'd love to see an artist try that. Then again, just by trying it they are probably communicating the idea of art meaning nothing.... foiled again!) I just rail against people who look at a work of art and insist that there a "meaning," in the sense of a message or point. to me, that reduces the idea of art. It turns it into a code that needs to be broken, or reduces it to a mission statement.

    Which isn't to say that there's something wrong if an artist wants to make a work of art with a clearly communicated message or point or moral or whatever you want to call. Just that I don't see it as necessary. I mean, if you're just trying to make a literal statement, be it about life or politics or society or whatever, there are better ways of communicating it than through art (like, for instance, just flat out stating your point). Which is why the important part of art, for me, usually isn't any message, but the aesthetic, abstract, emotional, inventive, unique or technical qualities of it.

  8. Haha, OK, again...I don't think that's what I was saying. I was talking solely about art communicating, not what it was communicating. See? This debate still hasn't ended :) Here's the original conversation, if anyone cares (on one of my long-since-abandoned grad school blogs):