Lost/Forgotten/Found #7: Woton’s Wake (1962)
Woton’s Wake; Directed by Brian De Palma; Produced by Cinema d’Arte; Written by Brian De Palma
Brian de Palma is currently enjoying one of his frequent periods of revival and rediscovery. His film Passion (2013) is receiving mixed reviews, with some considering it a return to form (others call it a bankrupt retread). Whatever its quality, this film’s release prompts us to look back. I’ve always been a fan of “early” De Palma, which I consider to be his work up-to-and-including The Phantom of the Paradise (1974). I’m sure that others would periodize it differently. That said, one of his earliest extant fiction films, Woton’s Wake (1962), has always proved elusive. I’d seen The Responsive Eye (1965) and have long admired Murder A La Mod (1968), The Wedding Party (1969), Greetings (1968/1969), and Hi, Mom! (1970). Taken together, these films showcase De Palma at his most cosmopolitan. The Responsive Eye situates his interests as being firmly ensconced within contemporary art worlds (the film investigates the emergence of Op Art). Murder, The Wedding Party, Greetings, and Hi, Mom! are lively, inventive, loose, and political. Put another way, they are the singular creations of a filmmaker who had filtered, processed, and added to the French New Wave, with specific attention to creating a new popular vernacular out of Godard’s sense of formal play. From 1965-1970, De Palma was one of the freshest voices of the New York underground. Maverick enough to eschew the visual logic static Hollywood cinema, he aspired to feature length narratives that drew most of their stylistic cues from the sudden availability of what world cinema–specifically international art cinema–had to offer.
Watching Woton’s Wake for the first time is like glancing onto the sketchpad of a smart-but-terminally-bored student. There is ample evidence of lessons half-learned, ideas half-thought through, but most of the page is taken up by quick sketches, doodles, and unprocessed bits of inspiration. In his wide-ranging and highly polemical book Un-American Psycho, Chris Dumas has characterized the film as “juvenilia” and “clearly the work of a film student” (108-109). De Palma packs enough nods to the cinephilic canon into this 26 minute work to last a career. From The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) to The Seventh Seal (1957), De Palma plays a constant game of “have you seen?” with his audience. The film’s title sequence even contains a bookshelf of key film books, whose specificity (Four Screenplays of Ingmar Bergman, etc) suggests the influences to come. Thankfully, even in his recapitulation of other movies and other makers, De Palma finds space to work toward a few themes that would characterize his later career.
When painted in broad strokes, the narrative of Woton’s Wake is almost jokingly simple. Woton Wretchichevsky (William Finley) is a prototypical outcast, a twisted man who spends his time hoarding trinkets, committing sex crimes, and burning people with a blowtorch. The film follows his conquests and hallucinations, including one extended attack on a woman that ends with him assuming the role of King Kong atop a tall building, shifting from the hunter to the hunted (the missile attacks on Woton-as-Kong culminate with stock footage of a nuclear bomb). Woton’s Wake does away with any pretenses towards realism or naturalism. The film is effectively silent, using its soundtrack for ironic songs that comment on Woton’s actions, overloaded sound effects, and Mickey Mousing for the frequent slapstick bits. Woton’s Wake is what happens when a merry prankster huffs too much cinema: a largely unprocessed, madcap romp that makes little sense. But, influences aside, here is the blueprint for much later De Palma: the social outcast lives (or works through) their fantastic sexual obsessions.
The film’s most prominent visual influence is German Expressionism. Woton’s Wake was too early to showcase De Palma’s assimilation of Godard. Beyond the basic premise–a sexual predator showcases his fetishes, neuroses, and frustrations–the film foregoes close associations with Hitchcock. The visual language of German silent cinema is a flexible resource to mine for inspiration. De Palma finds locations with strong diagonals, jagged edges, broken glass, and ample shadows. He goes beyond the tendency to treat cinematic space as a proscenium stage. Instead, his mobile camera accentuates his locations. This all culminates in an early sequence of Woton running. He careens down an M.C. Escher-like staircase and sprints through the streets. This sequence is impressionistically edited (not for continuity), uses a variety of set-ups, and even plays with artificially sped-up stock.
Woton’s Wake feels like De Palma’s “get it out of my system” film, in which he nods to what one can assume are many of his favorite films. Before his being accused of being in the thrall of Godard and Hitchcock, De Palma was an unabashed, card-carrying cinephile who seemingly could not wait to make a movie about other people’s movies. I wouldn’t call all this an acute “anxiety of influence” that makes De Palma any “worse” of an artist than anybody else. Rather, I salute him for being an impassioned student of cinema. – Kevin M. Flanagan