Directed by Robert Lang Starring Skye P Marshall Short Film Review by Annie Vincent
Based on Kenneth Anger’s 1954 cult movie, The Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome, Robert Lang has produced this occultist short which asks the audience to question reality. But where Anger hung his storyline from mythological characters and symbols, Lang makes no such connections and we come to question the point of this film, rather than our protagonist’s reality.
As a photographer primarily, Lang is consumed with capturing, in still, social comment. An earlier film by him, Belladonna, is a good example: a young party girl is videoed dancing around LA, dressed up to the nines, but not really having a good time and the short film captures the tragic reality that no amount of makeup, short skirts and parties can make you happy, particularly when loneliness and squalor reside with you. This message is interpretable even if you’re less than au fait with Lang’s work or similar films in the genre. But in Return to the Pleasure Dome, that solid idea or frame of reference is lost, even if you have seen the Anger film it is inspired by.
In the three-minute film, Skye walks into shot, wearing a tacky gold fringe-dress and begins an exotic dance to a tacky hillbilly tune, in front of a tacky gold curtain, barefoot and intent on captivating her audience. If Lang had begun to explore the ironic power-battles women who work as exotic dancers have with their clients, it would be understood. If he’d begun to explore the drug-fuelled lifestyle many exotic dancers live, again it would be understood. But if he was doing either of those things, or something else entirely, it was lost.
Mid-way through the first dance track, Skye begins to show signs of panic as the shot regularly jumps to a be-glittered face which smirks menacingly at her. She continues to dance – the show must go on after all. And then the track changes to something slower; Skye looks like she is drugged in a few shots: eyes rolling and facial expressions contorted. But then she looks stable again, though clearly frightened with a tear rolling down her cheek at one point. And then the film ends with a picture of an empty chair and Skye’s jacket on the back of it and by this point most audience members will have lost the point. Perhaps because there isn’t one, and if there is, it hasn’t been delivered clearly enough here. Most audience members can cope with the surreal and are intrigued by the ambiguous, but not when it alienates or confuses. There is a fine line and in this film, it has not been toed carefully.
If you like cult erotica and haven’t seen Anger’s film, do. It follows the congregation of various mythological gods, goddesses and creatures into the pleasure dome, supported by some interesting musical accompaniments and culminating in an orgy (very tame by today’s standards). It’s odd (what cult erotica isn’t?) but it does have a frame of reference – all of the characters depict different ideas and all of them pursue their pleasure in the dome. Here, with one character and a questionable link to the occult, we have no such semblance of storyline, no reason to connect with Skye, her situation or the question of her reality that Lang says he wants us to consider. Belladonna worked – we felt for our protagonist and understood her sadness – the message was strong enough and relevant enough to resonate. Return to the Pleasure Dome doesn’t work and no amount of artistic photography, juxtaposed styles and hints towards the supernatural can compensate for the lack of characterisation. The audience can’t buy-in here.