By Nicole Veneto
Strawberry Mansion‘s biggest asset is that it employs so many different artistic techniques to create a world as wildly inventive as it is heart-achingly sincere.
Strawberry Mansion, written and directed by Kentucker Audley and Albert Birney. Playing at the Brattle Theatre, Cambridge, on February 24 and coming to VoD on February 25.
Considered a foremost authority on artistic surrealism, cultural critic William Earle outlined several strategies toward disrupting cinematic realism in his 1968 essay “Revolt Against Realism in the Films.” A sensibility “directed to the irrational and magical,” surrealism effectively takes what’s familiar in the real world and “de- or sur-realiz[es]” it through processes of dislocation, exemplified by Lautréamont’s awe at the inherent beauty found between a sewing machine and an umbrella on a dissection table. According to Earle, “the displacement of things and persons from their own space and own time, from their own relative dimensions and public values, is designed to offer the spirit a world closer to its own desire.” This is an approach that independent directing duo Kentucker Audley and Albert Birney have clearly taken to heart when it comes to filmmaking. Their newest feature, Strawberry Mansion, is an analog science-fiction odyssey through kitschy DIY dreamscapes and hyper-consumerist dystopian realities, like Philip K. Dick for the Adult Swim crowd or Terry Gilliam’s Brazil on a community theater budget.
In the year 2035, mild-mannered James Preble (Audley) works for the government as an oneiric auditor, parsing through people’s dreams to evaluate taxes owed on any objects used or featured in a person’s subconscious. Audley and Birney posit a near future where even our dreams are fair game for monetization. That’s not much of a stretch, considering we’re now inundated with hype about investing in ugly ape NFTs and buying up real estate in the Facebook metaverse. (Once the digital world is conquered, what’s to stop capitalism from assigning a value to what happens inside our own heads?) Preble’s latest assignment brings him to the titular strawberry mansion, home to the aging but spirited artist Arabella “Bella” Isadora (All the President’s Men’s Penny Fuller playing the best manic pixie dream grandma since Ruth Gordon in Harold and Maude), her many chickens, and her tiny pet turtle Sugar Baby. Most of the populace uploads their dreams onto sleek memory sticks for auditing, but Bella has recorded all her dreams onto VHS tapes for the last several decades. Faced with reviewing over 2,000 videotapes, Preble takes up residence in the color-blocked home to calculate the back-taxes Bella owes on imaginary violins and hot air balloons.
As he sifts through the old woman’s vast dream archive, Preble finds himself falling in love with the younger version of Bella (Grace Glowicki) on the tapes. While Preble and Bella grow closer in the real world, the young Bella shows up in Preble’s dreams to free him from a monochrome pink kitchen where a man in a Hawaiin shirt (Linas Phillips) keeps pushing him to eat Cap’n Kelly’s chicken and drink Red Rocket cola. It turns out that this conspicuous product placement is all part of a government-backed conspiracy to literally AirDrop advertisements into people’s dreams. Bella, who firmly believes that “your dreams are your own,” gives Preble an ad-blocking helmet to protect him against all the subliminal advertising he’s unknowingly been subjected to. This ends up drawing the attention of Bella’s “evil” son Peter (played by Birney’s actual father Reed), whose sudden arrival at the abode threatens to keep Preble and Bella apart even in their dreams. From here, the film follows Preble as he transverses through time and space across different dreamscapes to rescue the young Bella from a giant Blue Demon (Birney himself in a Japanese oni mask and blue lion’s mane) who is holding her hostage.
Like all great surrealist works, Strawberry Mansion embraces dream logic as its central artistic ethos, deliberately blurring the lines between waking reality and unconscious fantasy with all the lo-fi charms of a late-night public access show. Talking flies warn of impending danger, waiters with papier-mâché frog heads play smooth jazz on the saxophone, and CEOs are literally wolves in men’s clothing who want to use your thoughts to generate ad revenue. All of this and much more is achieved through an eclectic combination of stop-motion animation, analog video effects, green screens, and a whole lot of unspooled magnetic VHS tape. Much of this mixed-media approach is a byproduct of low-budget ingenuity on Audley and Birney’s part. Essentially a “$20 million dollar with an indie film budget,” Strawberry Mansion’s biggest asset is that it employs so many different artistic techniques to create a world as wildly inventive as it is heart-achingly sincere. So much of this film feels homemade in the best possible way, arguably a rarity in today’s cinematic landscape where big-budget spectacles are sponsored by Nike and Raytheon.
Earle’s notion of surrealist displacement and dislocation is crucial to the magic spell Audley and Birney cast over their movie. Although the film takes place in the near future, Preble dresses like a Jacques Tati protagonist and drives around in a vintage green Cadillac, existentially out of place and time in a hyper-consumerist modernity whose newest innovation in fast-food products is the “chicken shake” (it’s exactly the sort of disgusting slop you think it is). Such anachronism extends to the very way in which Strawberry Mansion was filmed; originally shot on digital video, the footage was transferred onto 16mm to give the film a uniformly vintage look and feel without relying on crappy after-effects to mimic the texture of film stock. Dan Deacon’s accompanying synth score combines symphonic melodies with ambient electronica, lending an air of whimsy to Tyler Davis’s dreamy cinematography. The movies Audley and Birney cite as direct inspirations for Strawberry Mansion also share a sense of people and things being “out of time and place”: hints of The Wizard of Oz, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and even Eraserhead bleed into the aesthetics and themes of this film.
Although Strawberry Mansion proposes a frightening — i.e., very possible — future wherein our unconscious is capitalism’s next terrain, Audley and Birney are clearly optimistic about the power that dreams and dream logic can wage against commercial uniformity in filmmaking. Their film is a breath of fresh air amidst the smog of brand-sponsored content being passed off as “cinema” nowadays. Put simply, Strawberry Mansion is the stuff of pure and unrestrained imagination for dreamers everywhere.
Nicole Veneto graduated from Brandeis University with an MA in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, concentrating on feminist media studies. Her writing has been featured in MAI Feminism & Visual Culture, Film Matters Magazine, and Boston University’s Hoochie Reader. She’s the co-host of the new podcast Marvelous! Or, the Death of Cinema. You can follow her on Letterboxd and Twitter @kuntsuragi for weird and niche movie recommendations.