Douglas Buck’s FAMILY PORTRAITS consists of three short films - CUTTING MOMENTS, HOME, and PROLOGUE - that should be considered among the most artistic and distressing in recent memory.
CUTTING MOMENTS (1997) is the first in the series that, like its companion pieces, details a dysfunctional family at the end of its tether. The film in fact begins in an emotional vacuum. The wife, Sarah, played by Nica Ray, sports unnaturally subdued facial expressions, as if she has completely withdrawn into herself: she performs monotonous household tasks as though in a state of sleep or hypnosis. The father, Gary Bettsworth, has no remaining feelings for the woman and so he turns his jaded sexuality onto his son, whom he abuses.
Perhaps the film’s greatest strength is to depict horror in the every day. Routine events such as the family’s dining together, or watching the baseball game on television are a source of emotional sterility and pain: the protagonists speak in tones as blank as the expressions frozen into their faces, in conversations characters either have their heads low or look the other way. As with the films of Robert Bresson, Buck can be considered a spiritual filmmaker: the most precise nuance of facial expression, or the smallest throwaway line of dialogue carry an insight into the protagonists tortured inner lives that most filmmakers are incapable of.
Buck is a visual filmmaker. Sarah’s act of facial mutilation made later in the film (her only way of getting her husband’s attention) is prefigured a number of times: we see a close up of the book LAURA, about a woman who has seemingly been murdered by a shotgun blast to the face. Sarah dresses up in red to make herself more appealing to her husband (unsuccessfully) and then cuts her finger that she uses to trace a bloody smile upon her reflection in the mirror. These of course prefigure the infamous scene in which she scrubs her lips bloody before cutting them off, an act of desperation that encourages her husband to indulge in one final (and obscene) act of feeling.
A truly alarming film, both for the frightening emotional void it creates and the horrific mutilations at the film’s end. CUTTING MOMENTS is a stunning achievement.
Fortunately, Buck’s follow up piece HOME (1998) is just as provocative, and thankfully, the director takes a different artistic route to shock his audience. Gary (Gary Bettsworth), looks back to his childhood ruled over by his tyrannical and abusive father, who will not even allow his family to look at him. As a boy, he identifies with the hulking father figure whom he constantly stares at in awe (and is reprimanded for doing so) and mimics his bodily gestures. Because the father abuses the mother with continual power games, rants and bullies her, the present day Gary does the same with his wife and daughter.
Like CUTTING MOMENTS, every day rituals such as the family’s dining together are extremely sinister. In a flashback sequence, we see young Gary’s mother asks his father “How’s the coffee?” He replies, almost absurdly, “Too hot”, so the frightened woman frantically tries to cool the beverage by blowing upon it.
Because his childhood experiences were sterile, the adult Gary believes that this represents normality and thus regards his wife and daughter’s tender relationship with suspicion. In a chilling scene, he questions his daughter Cassandra “What do you and your mother do while I’m not at home?”
As with the previous work, the film ends violently. Buck prepares the viewer for this scene magnificently. Instead of building up suspense, the director presents the scene without feeling, to match its nonchalant protagonist: Gary walks downstairs and the camera stays on him; he then steps into the kitchen as the lens casually reveals that wife Helen and Cassandra are bound and gagged and seated round the kitchen table. The touch is a stroke of genius, as it keeps us on Gary's wavelength.
Instead of the graphic excesses of Buck’s earlier film, we are only given glimpses of the act. We see Gary’s suit covered in blood after the event, and are briefly shown cryptic fragments of the aftermath. When the bodies are finally revealed they are obscured by a soft focus lens (which provides abstract patterns and teases our imaginations) and partly off-screen, but as with CUTTING MOMENTS patterns of crimson are startlingly rendered and contrast with the static framing and an almost exclusively subdued use of colour.
At the denouement of HOME, Gary comes to realise that something is wrong with his existence and his actions, but can only give way to outright despair. Billy, the protagonist of Buck’s final part of the trilogy, PROLOGUE (2003), has no such choice. Brutally raped and assaulted one year previous, the young woman emerges from hospital in a wheelchair with hooks to replace her severed forearms. Arriving back home with her parents, she has no alternative but attempt to adapt to her new way of life.
Domestic rituals are again depicted as a source of emotional horror. Billy’s father may be attentive, but her mother withdraws from her. Upon Billy’s arrival home from an institution, her mother remains on the doorstep instead of rushing out to greet her, and when Billy drops a fork at the dinner table, she leaves the room and goes to the car boot sale! As with HOME’s coffee scene, then, there is a sense of the absurd to Buck’s universe.
Billy’s father takes her to see her ex boyfriend, who works at the post office. While the father feels guilt at not having been able to protect his daughter, Billy’s ex allowed her to walk home alone on that fateful night. An ineffectual character, he never stood by Billy when she needed him most, and now he is engaged to another woman. While he - as with many others in the film - is vacant, Billy always keeps a look of resolve and acceptance.
Ready to leave the shop, Billy glares at her ex’s post office uniform and comes to a recognition: her attacker was a postman. She then gazes at the wall, at a photograph of an outstanding, now retired employer, whom she instantly recognises as the man who raped and maimed her. The attacker, a local artist called Benjamin Miller proves Buck’s most chilling creation. Miller and his wife suffered the death of their daughter many years ago, and the wife pretends that she is still alive. Benjamin was once a much respected, pillar of the community but now he has gone horribly to seed. His facial expressions are so chilling he seems to be visibly shrinking into himself, and his art - which he now keeps locked away - has degenerated into obscene sexual images of young girls.
Buck's visual gifts are again on display. Landscapes are cold and hard, and interiors are blank and sterile: the visual signifiers perfectly encapsulate a harsh universe. Like the Frenchman Bruno Dumont, creator of the marvellous LA VIE DE JESUS (1997), Buck is a bleak, sober director who films without pity. As with Dumont, one of the genuine "art house" directors out there, nothing is spelled out explicitly. Characters can prove inarticulate and we are often required to explicate visual signifiers. Benjamin's house is scattered with photographs of his now dead daughter: all the images are tellingly cut off at the arms, and allow us to read that he may have abused his own daughter.
Billy finally decides to confront her attacker, and arrives outside his house but instead of giving way to hatred, she pities the man and leaves. By the end of the film, she performs one brief act of kindness that shows she won’t allow herself to give in to despair: she is Buck's strongest character yet. PROLOGUE might well be Buck's most remarkable and distressing film, and also his most optimistic. All three films receive my highest recommendation: it doesn't get much better than this.
FAMILY PORTRAITS: A TRILOGY OF AMERICA is presented uncut and benefits from clean transfers. The three films can be played separately on disc one, or as part of a single feature on the second one.
Directed by Douglas Buck
USA / Colour / 90 mins
SPECIAL DVD FEATURES
A Voice in the Head DVD Release
NTSC all region / 1.33:1 (CUTTING MOMENTS, HOME), 1.66:1 (PROLOGUE)/ Dolby Stereo mono
FAMILY PORTRAITS: A TRILOGY OF AMERICA