Saturday, October 17, 2020

Favorite Horror Stories: “The Answer Tree" by Steven R. Boyett (1988)

It started with weirdo flicks in the early Seventies, they had titles like El Topo and The Holy Mountain, Rocky Horror Picture Show and Flesh for Frankenstein, Multiple Maniacs and Eraserhead, They Came from Within and Salo: 120 Days of Sodom. Midnight movies, they were called, shown in disreputable theaters, premiering at the stroke of 12 and playing all night long, attracting hardcore cinephiles (but more likely the lost and the lonely and the houseless seeking shelter). These were films for the after-hours, unfit for matinees, watched by denizens of darkness the daytime city pretends to not see. Again and again these acolytes returned to the source, creating a cult of revolt against the constraints of daily rational life: on the screen, anything goes.

Influential 1983 nonfiction study, perhaps the first to explore this new subculture, 
by Village Voice critic J. Hoberman
Midnight movies are well met in 1988’s Silver Scream, a huge anthology of movie-themed horror stories edited by “splatterpunk” godfather David J. Schow (whose own movie-themed tales would’ve been a perfect fit herein). In an antho bursting with great works by the biggest genre names, it is Steven R. Boyett's “The Answer Tree” which still stands out to me, a unique work of cinematic madness, academic commentary, and squicky sexuality.

Boyett began writing his first published novel when he was still a teenager, the well-regarded fantasy Ariel, which came out in 1983 as a paperback original. He wasn't a horror writer, but was friends with Eighties horror writers, later wrote two other horror stories, published in 1989 and 1992 respectively, "Like Pavlov's Dogs" in Book of the Dead and "Emerald City Blues" in Midnight Graffiti. I liked those too, as I recall, but it is “The Answer Tree” that I’ve returned to again and again over the years. He invokes the mystery of the midnight movies of Cronenberg, Lynch, and Romero and filters through it the abstractions of European cinema, Cocteau and Bunuel, Antonioni and Franju, Pasolini and Godard. Exploitation and art? SOLD.

We begin with Howard Grange, film academic, standing in line at a porn theater with his $50 ticket, disgruntled about the fact that the line is long and the long line is made up of clean-cut college students, the privileged type that take his classes but only engage to ask "Is this going to be on the test?" But tonight they're all here engaged in a kind of illicit activity, "isolated individuals... mingling with others who shared their peculiar taste in entertainment." 

The movie they are all here to see is not pornographic, not in the literal sense anyway: it is the final, suppressed film by the late Spanish filmmaker Bienvido, a mysterious, obsessed, maniacally driven artist whose surrealist output enrages, confounds, and excites critics and audiences alike. This movie is The Answer Tree, which is rumored to be so subliminally shocking, so disturbing to a viewer's subconscious, that it can literally kill some of those who see it. "I'm sure we'll all pull through," Grange says to a former student who recognizes him in the concession line. "For fifty bucks a shot?" the young man replies. "Somebody better not."

Boyett intersperses passages about Bienvido's life from the books Grange has written on him, university press tomes with titles like The Key of the Eye and Tyranny of the Flesh. From accidental on-camera deaths of his actors to his flirtation with the fascist regimes of early/mid-century Europe, Bienvido is the type of artist who courts madness, so single-minded and driven in creating his art that he is beholden to none. You know the type. 

Concerned not with outward displays of politics, but only his own fantastical imagination he brings to metaphoric life in flickering images, Bienvido makes movies catch-as-catch can, scrounging money any way possible, enlisting whatever friends, acquaintances, and lovers he may have into becoming cogs in the factory of his memories, nightmares, and fantasies. 

"One must be willing to sacrifice anything for the sake of the image. The image is everything. The brain believes the eye. The eye believes the image. I am the image. The eye is the key. By shaping what occurs in front of it, I shape what is behind it as well."

Grange is ambivalent and ultimately annoyed by these clean-cut fellows, much younger than himself, who share the theater with him. Indulging in some self-satisfied bitterness, he laments how both he and Bienvido have been unheralded and ignored. Ignorant students take his film classes for an easy grade, and now they spend $50 for... what? He knows: to watch someone die.

Bienvido's films were often censored and suppressed, smuggled to Cannes where they cause a sensation, and at times screened for Nazi royalty (even, yes, Hitler!). Boyett continues with Grange's writings on Bienvido, provides glimpses of what they featured—"a marriage bed is slit open to reveal internal organs and later, a fetus." The filmmaker calls his work a "cinema of instinct" and begins casting an androgynous Belgian actress to express uncomfortable notions of sexuality. This actress will be murdered and this seems to push Bienvido further into the realm of mad genius artist. Awesome!

As The Answer Tree begins, Grange settles in with his Coke and jujubes and notebook and pen, and allows Bienvido's final masterpiece to unspool before him. A girl is giving birth and from between her legs "long, thin, jointed, furred legs emerge. Spider legs..." It's gnarly stuff, and Grange scribbles his notes: "Unusually linear! Story emphasis. Misogyny/fear of flawed progeny." The obscure yet graphic images exert a powerful pull on Grange, and Boyett uses the professor's notes to illuminate what Grange can barely express to himself.

Both the movie and the biography continue, with Bienvido pursuing a kind of "derangement of the senses" as he gains French government money for his "lifework," yes, The Answer Tree. His notoriety has preceded him, and the great Salvador Dali turns him down when he asks the artist to design the film. Bienvido edits the movie himself... and dies in the editing room. A rumor starts that audience members are dying at showings of it (Grange remains skeptical of this), and copies of the film are destroyed. But there are secret showings, and "the mythos grew." This is fantastic!

Spoilers yo: The Answer Tree ends, much like it began, and the theatergoers filter out, with one joker playing dead. Grange takes his notebook, with all his frantic, fevered insights—"Cinema of man as animal of instinct to fuck as animal is man to cinema as instinct to fuck the daughter as extension of the mother as extension of the self." Film-school bullshit? Perhaps. But Grange is headed home, where he can finally finish his last book on Bienvido, grab his .38, and wait, naked and erect, for his wife and teenage stepdaughter—so strangely, tantalizingly androgynous—to return home...

Back in print 2020 from Cimarron Street Press

As grim and downbeat as "The Answer Tree" is, as splatterpunk stories often were in order to have "cred, " its imaginary academic scenario is deeply satisfying to me, even, dare I say it, fun, especially as I minored in film and feel comfortable with a lot of the kind of academic jargon Boyett’s professor uses. I'm certainly familiar with and a fan of the types of movies being referenced! While it can be a writerly indulgence to create a creation within one’s story, and then to comment critically upon it, I think the fact that this a short story rather than a novel works in its favor. And who doesn't love a mad genius? Other stories of fictional filmmakers and cursed films abound, of course. In recent years lots of people loved John Carpenter's episode "Cigarette Burns" for Showtime's Masters of Horror, and I liked it too, but it was ground really already covered by Boyett's story, this film that will drive its viewers to madness, murder, and beyond.


Hob said...

Have you read Ramsey Campbell's take on this kind of premise, The Grin of the Dark? Campbell changed it up a bit by having the creator not be an avant-garde director, but a 1920s silent comedian similar to Roscoe Arbuckle, playing on the way Arbuckle's style of anarchic slapstick humor can sometimes seem like there's something darker and crazier trying to manifest itself.

AGU said...

Campbell also has a great novel on the subject of "lost cinema" called Ancient Images that was previously discussed on this here blog! Kim Newman's Famous Monsters is a highly recommended entertainment biz-themed collection of stories as well.