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Foreplays #14: Brian De Palma's "Woton's Wake"

Brian De Palma's third short film, made when he was a student at Columbia University, boils with a fervent, creative, youthful vitality.
Foreplays is a column that explores under-known short films by renowned directors. Brian De Palma's Woton's Wake (1962) is free to watch below.
Woton’s Wake is Brian De Palma’s third short film, made when he was a student at Columbia University. Watched today, Woton’s Wake signals a strong tendency in the filmmaker’s career: his investment in collage.
Collage takes many forms in De Palma’s cinema. It’s in his taste for mosaic-narratives that merge almost-autonomous plot lines. It’s in the way he fits together disparate tones, genres, and styles of acting. It’s in the play with surfaces and depth, fostered by some of his favorite ‘composite’ images—split screens, materialized memory flashes or mental hypotheses, split focus diopter shots. It’s in his very conception of reality as a complex puzzle that can only be grasped via a laborious reconstruction and rearrangement of the pieces. It’s in the incorporation, mimicking, and merging of different audiovisual formats, textures, dispositifs—TV reportage in Sisters (1972), video-clip and porn advertising in Body Double (1984), images from security cameras in Scarface (1983) or Snake Eyes (1998), screen tests in Murder à la Mod (1967) and The Black Dahlia (2006), YouTube videos in Redacted (2007) and Passion (2012), the reconstructed film in Blow Out (1981), and the photographic collage that closes Femme Fatale (2002).
Woton’s Wake boils with a fervent, creative, youthful vitality. It’s a product of the multifaceted cultural scene of a particular time and place (the New York of the 1960s). It’s also a low-budget film, made—literally—with De Palma’s own hands. This is, at least in part, what gives Woton’s Wake its collage form, wild and raw, but also thoroughgoing: from the very conception of character and narrative as complex assemblages, to formal choices that privilege operations of fragmentation, cutting, pasting, stitching; from the depiction of mismatching architectures, to the treatment of space as the envelope for pockets of film history—or as the battleground for colliding energies.
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Woton Vladimir Wretchechesky, the hero of Woton’s Wake, is the first demiurge-artist in De Palma’s filmography. He steals items from his victims and collects all manner of street detritus in order to build strange machine-sculptures. When he looks at the world, he sees only fragments, found objects, scraps to be grabbed and reassembled. Like several of the roles that William Finley would play for the director in future collaborations (Phantom of the Paradise [1974] and The Black Dahlia, for instance), Woton is an outcast from society, a disfigured freak on a private, solipsistic quest. A master of disguise, he changes his look multiple times throughout the film. In the blink of a cut, Finley—aided by make-up and props—passes from one persona to another. His acting is a carnival of grotesque facial expressions, of extreme bodily gestures that defy every conception of psychological, humanist, three-dimensional characterization.  
Woton’s story is told through folk tunes that present him in a legendary fashion—the horrific monster of a fairy-tale designed to scare kids. His adventures resemble those of Pygmalion, but with a twist: when his sculpture comes to life as a real woman, he’ll change her back to inanimate matter. But Woton can’t be reduced to a single image or trait: he’s a totally malleable, plastic figure who calls forth a multiplicity of characters, myths, and narratives.  
Woton has the obstinacy of a mad scientist (Victor Frankenstein, Dr. Jekyll, Faust), and the powers of an alchemist (through his “ardent passion, steel is transferred to soft, yielding flesh,” according to an intertitle). He bounces like a puppet-toy, runs like a slapstick actor, has the mannerisms of a magician, and the silhouette of Nosferatu. And, like Gloria Swanson in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1950), Woton is always in full performance mode, inhabiting a fantasy-world of his own making. In one scene, he elaborates his look, with patience and pleasure, in front of a mirror framed by many other small mirrors. With a candle, he illumes the circular lights on a dressing table that—like absolutely everything in the film—is artisanal, hand-made, built from bits and pieces.
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Not only the hero but also the film itself is built as a conglomerate: a collage of impulses, templates, and allusions, coming from different artistic practices and fields. The credits of Woton’s Wake appear over a series of illustrations imitating the pages of a medieval book. Abundant in comic strip and cartoon-like effects, the film has traces of both avant-garde theater and puppet shows. It combines a vignette narrative with two folk songs that orally convey the hero’s story. Across the film, De Palma uses many types of experimental music (musique concrète, ritualistic chants, a tape played backwards, atonal composition). The underground spirit of Bruce Conner’s early assemblages and the junk-décors of Jack Smith are mixed with the legacy of German Expressionist cinema.  
In Woton’s Wake, every possible element and device is manipulated to enhance the film’s artisanal nature and its spirit of artifice. The image is often overexposed, crammed with objects and props, filled with layers of fabrics. Mobile, flashing lights give us partial views of the sets and the action. Speed and movement are distorted. Bodies behave like wind-up toys, freezing and unleashing their expressions as if they’ve suddenly been animated. Sounds are sharp and gritty, sometimes arranged in repetitive, mechanical sets. The editing favors collision over continuity, disjointed movement over natural progression. Tilted or overhead angles abound: they seem serially pasted or piled up on top of each other. We can experience surreal substitutions of bodies and locations modeled on Luis Buñuel’s Un chien andalou (1929), or metaphorical insertions functioning as exclamation marks—as with the series of perspectives on various lion statues inspired by Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925). On top of all that, De Palma experiments with the creation of what Jean-André Fieschi, writing about Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922), called an “imaginary space,” where “fresh networks (networks of the wish, not of the real) are woven between characters beyond the ‘realism’ of the space autonomous to each scene.”  
There’s a sequence in Woton’s Wake that begins with a whitewashed, medium-shot of a woman—Woton’s next victim. With a shawl covering her head, she exits a house and looks at the sky. Woton, in the next shot, runs in front of the camera, giving the impression that he is advancing straight towards her. Two close-ups seal the connection between the characters with a perfect eyeline match: the woman, startled, looking screen right; Woton popping up from a corner and looking screen left. But these shots also engineer a spatial contraction—suggesting a close proximity between these figures who now appear like puppet-toys in a Punch and Judy show. The fifth shot is a fast wipe that moves from the woman to Woton, breaking the illusion of proximity, revealing that they are quite far away from each other—and thus forcing us to re-process all the spatial relations we’ve previously inferred. In Woton’s Wake, as in Nosferatu, montage calls, cues, attracts—it condenses and expands distances, bends space, connects places and actions that are distant.
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The two most important locations in the film are presented as parts that don’t fit together—aberrant architectures whose exteriors and interiors do not match. The first location is Woton’s pad. Initially, he accesses it through a manhole in the street. Afterwards, we are given to see a toy-like façade, made with sheets of wood, bits of cardboard, and a strip of celluloid film, all crowned by signage displaying the hero’s name. Finally, once Woton is inside, we experience a space taken up entirely by portions of sculptures whose collective size looks equal to or bigger than the façade itself. Half lab, half studio, this place presents no distinction between the dressed décor and Woton’s artworks: all seem part of the same deranged, fragmentary creation. Inanimate objects are chained together, forming ensembles built from many small, mundane pieces. These machine-sculptures beat, jingle, shake, and clink—reminding us of the boiling, bubbling cauldrons in which wizards once brewed their potions.
The second location is a building with a central, crystal tower into which Woton follows his creation. While the camera is still outside, through the glass, we see people ascending and descending the stairs as if they are dead souls—for, if we are to believe the accompanying folk tune, this is, in fact, Hell. De Palma has always been fond of meticulously mapping spaces whenever they are crucial for a sequence, but here every detail designed to show the relations between characters and places is exaggerated and satirized.  The film shows us how the woman  climbs onto the adjacent building’s roof and reaches a loft window; an intertitle (“meanwhile, below”) dutifully designates the spatio-temporal position of Woton in relation to her. What comes afterwards, however, is a pure negation of rational spatial relations: once inside, we are at the mercy of a throw of dice.
In this haunted house, the hide-and-seek game turns into a Marienbad-style origami fortune teller. Each room spits out some mythic scene from film history, parodied, smashed up, and re-enacted by Woton with his victim. While the woman plays chess with a man in the loft, Woton walks dark corridors, rooms with nets and tapestries, participating in some kind of pagan ritual—a remix of two party scenes in Federico Fellini’s La dolce vita (1960). Afterwards, he skillfully takes the place of the chess player and, suddenly, we are in the chess scene of Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1957)—complete with rocks and a wild ocean in the background. The game ends with Death’s triumph. Defeated, in close-up, Woton agonizes with his head atop the chessboard. A sudden zoom out and the coast scenery has vanished: we are again in the loft. The woman flees Woton, crawling and running through corridors, ascending and descending stairs, like Maya Deren in Meshes of the Afternoon (1943). In a new room, a new scene—this time it’s Phantom of the Opera (1925)—is enacted: Woton plays the piano, his face covered in bandages; the woman unmasks him.  
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In the film’s ultimate section, collage takes the form of an explosive clash between two flows of imagery and two strands or attitudes of the 1960s counterculture. On the one hand, we have Woton who, in full delirium, beats his chest like King Kong and laughs hysterically. He hangs from a window—absurdly placed in the midst of a semi-empty, dark setting—and smashes tiny planes and parachutes falling around him. The reverse shots, however, are of a different nature: documentary-type images of war, crowds, leaders, soldiers, attacks, and demonstrations. Sketchy bits of music, jarring fragments of sound, emphasize the violence of the montage between these two sets of shots. Until, abruptly, everything comes to an end: silence reigns, and an image of a nuclear bomb explosion takes up the entire screen!
In this finale, Woton’s escapist dream of play and pleasure, his orgiastic release of Dionysiac energies, is set against the reality of war, politics, and society, the fear of nuclear annihilation, the sense of apocalypse. The bomb brings full circle the reference to Alain Resnais’s Hiroshima, mon amour (1959) established at the start of the film, when Woton burnt a couple with a blowtorch—the image of the sweat turning into ash on the lovers’s skin evokes vividly one of the inaugural shots of Resnais’s film. But the bomb also invokes Godzilla (Ishiro Honda, 1954)—a truly collage-gone-wrong monster (even his original name is a portmanteau), whose features and powers are based on the effects of radiation.  
Writing about De Palma in the 1970s, Pascal Kané observed that his films share a common theme: the protagonists are monsters excluded from society, freaks who arouse general repulsion. However, argues Kané, “De Palma’s monsters are not metaphoric”—they are neither symbols nor symptoms of society (as has been said, for instance, of Georges Romero’s zombies or Wes Craven’s psychopathic families). Producer Tomoyuki Tanaka, the creator of Godzilla, said that the monster “symbolized the revenge of nature against humanity.” It’s this very idea that gets flipped wildly at the end of Woton’s Wake. The folk tune refers to the bomb as “the vengeance of humanity” against Woton. And the last words uttered in the film are the cry: “Save the bomb for Wretchechesky!”
Woton’s Wake prefigures the link between what Kané calls “De Palma’s passion for difference” (those monsters who can’t be accepted, absorbed, assimilated by society’s fabric) and a collage approach that exhibits its fragmentary nature and affirms the creative potential of artifice. This particular vein of De Palma’s cinema has always been too much for the guardians of unity, homogeneity, good taste, and high values. Save Woton for them!

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