NOVEMBER 20, 2019
FOR ITS NEW YORK CITY premiere at the Metrograph this past August, Eileen Myles (who goes by the pronouns they/them) paired their debut film, The Trip, with the 1973 agitprop, black power fantasy: The Spook Who Sat by the Door. In program notes provided to the theater, Myles explained why they chose Spook to accompany The Trip: “Because I crave the experience of seeing a film with an audience that probably hungers for its news today at least as much as I do.” Curt and coy, they tantalize with a single word, “news.” What “news” does a film from 1973 have to deliver? As a poet, Myles deals in trading force of impact for literal definition. In characterizing Spook as newsworthy, they allude to its prescient power and its history as a work of socio-cultural import that, because of its incendiary content, was nearly impossible to view for decades.
Elaborating in a phone discussion from their home in Marfa, Texas, days after the screening, Myles explained that they had read about Spook in Frank Wilderson’s book Red, White & Black: Cinema and the Structure of U.S. Antagonisms. Wilderson describes the momentum behind its release, citing “lines that went around the block at the back-alley theaters.” Weeks later, a National Guard armory in Compton was robbed. The break-in was superficially similar to a scene in Spook. Allegedly under pressure from the FBI, United Artists yanked it from distribution. Until actor Tim Reid tracked down a negative stored under an alternate title and released the film on DVD in 2004, Spook was essentially held captive. (“When they want to lose something, they lose it,” Reid told the Chicago Tribune). “The reality of people having such excitement around the film and the film being taken away from them, collectively, seemed like such a part of the narrative,” Myles said.
Despite its widespread availability today, Myles did not watch Spook before they chose it to dovetail with The Trip. This was a conscious decision inspired by their work as an organizer of a film series called “In Front of Us,” formed in Marfa in the aftermath of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential loss. “We thought, we don’t know what’s in front of us,” they explained. “We’ll put a film in front of us and keep talking.” Usually, Myles hasn’t seen the selected film before it plays.
When theaters that cater to cinephiles like Metrograph show “double bills” like Myles’s, they often do so with an homage that plays to expectations. For example, earlier this year at the theater, filmmaker Peggy Ahwesh put together a program featuring Doris Wishman’s Bad Girls Go to Hell (1965) and her own experimental, avant-garde short, The Deadman (1989). Wishman’s film provided cinematic and historical context for Ahwesh’s piece, which parodied on-screen misogyny. Joint or double features like these are curated by artists and experts who carefully arrange disparate films in affecting diptychs.
Meanwhile, Myles’s double bill borrowed from a “grindhouse” tradition, reflecting the kind of theater that would have shown a film like Spook (or Bad Girls Go to Hell) when it was released. (As the work of David Church reveals, the “grind” policy, in filmic parlance, was synonymous with “churn” and referred to the volume of movies shown at low-budget venues on double and even triple bills.) Unlike staff or guest programmers at modern repertory and revival theaters, grindhouse operators were more interested in selling tickets than they were in melding meaning from the union of two features.
In his text, “From Exhibition to Genre: The Case of Grindhouse Films,” Church traces the evolution of multi-billed showings. During the 1930s, the practice was pragmatic: a way to entice low-income patrons. Studios dispensed blockbuster titles to play alongside lower-budget, second-tier, “B” pictures. Post-economic recovery, Hollywood recouped its stakes and grindhouse owners could no longer afford to show major releases. Forced to get creative, they emphatically rejected mainstream fare with sensationalistic marketing, advertising genre titles to niche but loyal audiences. In some cases, they even capitalized on headline news to show films that were several years old. Church cites a piquant example that occurred in New York in 1959: after news of Elizabeth Taylor and Eddie Fisher’s affair broke, theaters on 42nd Street played a double feature of Elephant Walk (1954) starring Taylor, with Bundle of Joy (1956) starring Fisher.
Myles knew that their fans would flock to see The Trip’s New York premiere and used their slate at Metrograph to sell tickets to Spook. They also endeavored to attract people with a program inspired by current events — specifically, the geopolitical situation in West Texas and the Black Lives Matter movement. “What’s the effect of putting one film next to another?” Myles asked, rhetorically. “I experienced [the program at Metrograph] as an opportunity to make a statement and to talk about the things that I’ve been thinking about.” With this attitude, Myles sidles up to mixed company, placing the legacy of esteemed contemporaries including programming pioneers like Iris Berry (who initiated repertory and revival screenings at the Museum of Modern Art in 1939) and Cinema 16’s Jonas Mekas in dialogue with those grindhouse operators in the 1960s and 1970s. Myles’s approach fails to neatly subscribe to either of these templates and, as a result, generates a novel approach in film programming and curating.
After a series of high-profile projects — including an adaptation of Chelsea Girls picked up by Amazon Studios — fell through, Myles made The Trip with the help of their friend, filmmaker David Fenster. Introducing it at Metrograph, Myles spoke with droll bite of its setting: “We thought, ‘Everyone’s making a film about Marfa, so let’s make a film about Marfa.’”
Grainy and sun-washed, The Trip has the look and feel of a polaroid found in the back pocket of a pair of Levi’s. Accompanied by Honey, a pitbull mix who acts as a grumbling chorus through subtitles, Myles makes their way down streets that could belong to any other sparsely populated Southwestern city. After some playful teasing, they coaxes out a score of puppets. Myles speaks for all of them save for a crocodile (voiced by John Ashbery), dipping in and out of falsetto. The vocal affectation serves a double purpose: to distinguish their words from Myles’s and to cast them as childlike. (Myles made these very puppets as a kid.) Endearingly crude in appearance, each has its own distinct personality: Montgomery, who is coming to terms with his sexuality as a gay man; Bedilia, a “diva” who longs to sing on the radio; Casper, a ghost who dreams of studying philosophy; Oscar, “the man of the house” who Myles compares to their father; and Crocky the crocodile, who’s either a recovering alcoholic or a suffering one.
Ostensibly, Myles has brought the puppets out for a joyride, to see daylight for the first time in 60 years and the new environs of their desert home. The puppets react with awe to clouds, mountains, and a freight train. But their wonder is a sad symptom of naïveté, and they’re hyper-aware of their stunted perspective. “I’m sure it was hard to spend your youth in a puppet box,” Myles coos. “It was a picnic basket, Eileen, it was like we were lunch,” Bedilia snaps back. “Born a puppet. Born a slave,” Casper, the most “vocal” of the puppets, laments.
As Myles fleshes out the puppets’ characters, the joy ride becomes more of a narrative-driven road trip, fueled by guilt and resentment. But where is this pickup going? Near the end of their journey, Casper approaches Myles with trepidation. “I do realize I am a ghost,” he says, “but I have done some research on the internet, and I’ve discovered a university in Alpine.” Now we know which direction we’re heading. Casper’s humanity is heartbreaking, and for a moment we forget that we’re watching a cast of puppets. What was it like to languish in a picnic basket for the better part of a century, cognizant of a world beyond wicker walls?
Myles drives the motley crew to their destination: Sul Ross University (named after a Confederate general, Casper notes). A series of quick, zooming cuts show the brick facilities and their concrete grounds from the ghost’s point-of-view. His “expression,” sculpted into a perennial “O,” uncannily conveys the fear and excitement familiar to anyone who’s ever been a college freshmen. He asks Myles for a recommendation letter.
The film fades to black, but Casper isn’t done. “This is not the end of the story, oh no,” he says. In a monologue, he compares himself to “the slaves of the world”: specifically, refugees “in cages and jails not far from here.” (Alpine is 88 miles from the US-Mexico border.) “Less visible than a ghost. More silent than a puppet,” he says of the victims of the “never-ending war this country wages against the poor and vulnerable […] R.I.P. Not rest in peace. But abolish the racist, imperialist patriarchy,” Casper says, closing the short with a rallying cry: “Abolish it!”
Myles thought they’d be able to speak again before the next film played. But the lights in the theater didn’t brighten, and The Spook Who Sat by the Door began without introduction. The stray from the planned course of events put Myles in an unexpected headspace. Unsure if attendees were familiar with Spook’s embattled history, they wondered how they would perceive it as a companion to The Trip. At the very least, the material reels of the film had something in common with the captive puppets of The Trip.
Spook begins in the office of a white congressman up for reelection, discussing how he’s faring in the polls with two advisors. One of them (an African-American woman) informs the senator that “the negroes are the trouble spot.” He replies: “I’m the best friend those people have in Washington!” in the first of many cringe-worthy lines delivered by white authority figures that, unfortunately, haven’t aged a day. The team comes up with a plan to win black voters’ favor by accusing the CIA of racism. Parrying the indictment, the CIA institutes an affirmative action program to recruit a black agent, sure that none of the applicants will be able to pass their rigorous testing. But one candidate proves them wrong. Dan Freeman (played with conscientious restraint by Lawrence Cook) “has a way of fading into the background,” as one official puts it.
The first time Freeman discernibly appears on-screen, he’s among fellow recruits, left alone by superiors to celebrate their qualification for the next round of testing. They engage in a spirited discussion about tokenism that ends with a clinking of glasses in concerted agreement. Standing furthest from the camera (positioned at the bar), closest to the wood-paneled walls, Freeman is the only recruit not to toast. He’s wise to refrain; a cut to the same men on a television screen shows that they’re under surveillance.
Freeman appears in the foreground and speaks for the first time several minutes later. Dressed in a white shirt surrounded by white walls, his head appears to “float” amid the scenery. At once partially invisible but impossible to miss, he embodies the role that the CIA has created for him as a person of color. Once admitted, he’s assigned the job of “top-secret reproduction center section chief,” (or, copy machine clerk). His desk is situated near a door, convenient for when he’s called upon to give tours of the sterile facilities to visiting officials.
Five years later, he leaves the organization under the auspices of taking a job in social work to “help [his] people help themselves.” In a car ride from the airport, Freeman talks candidly with a friend about his past involvement with a black power organization called The Cobras, revealing his ruse and setting the film’s real plot in motion. He tracks down The Cobras’ current hangout spot and shows up to pick a fight, easily overpowering three men. “You really want to mess with Whitey?” He says. “I can show you how.”
With Freeman, director Ivan Dixon denies us the comfort of a protagonist who fits an archetype. Spook’s protagonist remains elusive throughout the entire film, adding yet another layer of meaning to the film’s title. Among his comrades, he possesses a supernatural air, enigmatic and all-knowing. Sitting down with a young, mixed-race Cobra named Willa, Freeman takes on a fatherly tone that creeps toward respectability. He urges him to finish college and get a degree. When Willa scoffs, Freeman fires back, quoting his grandmother: “Get an education, because that’s the only thing the white man can’t take away from you.”
Tensions break in Chicago days after a race riot — which Dixon captures in a viscerally arresting, drawn-out sequence that feels like documentary footage — when the newly christened “Freedom Fighters” launch an offense against the National Guard. Freeman’s troops blindside the Guard with their prowess. They even kidnap a top official and paint him in black face, only to gun him down in broad daylight the next morning, having poured LSD down his throat, stripped him to his underwear, and let him loose on a children’s bicycle.
The film ends in a showdown between Freeman and his good friend, Dawson, a former “ex-hoodlum” turned cop who’s figured him out. Freeman kills Dawson but is stabbed during the fight. Calling in Freedom Fighters to help clear the body, he answers the door in a traditional African tunic. His identity discovered by a former ally, he’s shed his disguise. Badly injured, his fate unclear, he sends his comrades back into the night to continue the national war he started with the deployment of Cobras across the country. Over the sound of a newscast reporting uprisings in seven other cities, Freeman raises a glass in salute to two African totemic figures situated on a bureau by a balcony door in a gesture that bookends his first appearance on-screen. He demonstrates his loyalty not to any individual, group, or cause, but to an ideology. He doubles down on his justification for killing Dawson and his allegiance to an abstract credo: “freedom.” What freedom means to Freeman, who has bled for the cause and might well die for it, remains as mysterious as the man himself.
Dixon, a successful television actor known for his wholesome role on Hogan’s Heroes, paid for the rights for Sam Greenlee’s novel The Spook Who Sat by the Door out-of-pocket. He sold the film to United Artists using a few clips of inoffensive action footage that looked to them like typical “Blaxploitation” fare. When executives saw the final cut, they were stunned. They had been duped into financing a movie about deceiving unsuspecting white folks, whose foolishness, it is implied, will eventually lead to their downfall. To boot, their contract with Dixon forbade them from cutting anything without his permission, and they were obliged to release it in at least 36 theaters. Spook played for several weeks in “back-alley” grindhouse theaters before United Artists found an opportunity to make it disappear. The idea of a work of art, imprisoned, compelled Myles to show Spook alongside The Trip. Beyond that, Myles had no idea what other commonalities the films would share. The onus was placed on each patron to draw comparisons and meaning from the double bill, effectively dispersing the powers lent by critical curation throughout the entire theater.
Comparing the serendipitous glitch in programming and its effect to their writing, Myles said: “I often work in a state of fear of certain messages not being available or being blocked or not finding their place, and then the very form of thing you’re making or writing just leads you to the conclusion which is the one you wanted to make all along.” Without Myles’s guidance or explicit framing, the two films still conversed like intelligentsia on a 1970s talk show, tackling topics like marginalized invisibility, incarceration, and the power of education.
In one of Spook’s most poignant scenes, a Cobra dressed as a janitor strolls into an influential businessman’s office and brazenly steals a number of collectors’ pipes from him while he chats on the phone. In voice-over, accompanied by a jaunty piano tune, Freeman narrates: “A black man with a mop, tray, or a broom in his hand can go damn near anywhere in this country, and a smiling black man is invisible.” Under the guise of Blaxploitation, aided by his public persona, Dixon carried out a parallel operation to fund and distribute Spook. Myles, in making a film that is, outwardly, about a puppet road trip, acts with the same guerilla instincts. “To be playful and to risk entertainment and pleasantry and sweetness as parts of the apparatus of making a larger political point seems really important,” Myles said of The Trip’s tone.
Myles sees the act of viewing films alone, together (with each audience member at once inhabiting a personal, private mental space and a shared physical one) as a unifying political act. Entering into a realm of mystery, accompanied by others, constitutes a pact. It’s important for them to see films “in the same seat as the audience” in Marfa, as it was with Spook’s screening in New York. In this way, Myles again aligned themselves not just with ticket-buyers at Metrograph in 2019, but also with grindhouse patrons, who, in 1973 were hungry for The Spook Who Sat by the Door’s news.