Alexandre Rockwell: In the Soup (1992) | feature image
In the Soup | courtesy of

Filmmaker Alexandre Rockwell’s Everyday Surrealism

Three Alexandre Rockwell films, now on, depict everyday Surrealism and Expressionism quite unlike the usual dingy kitchen-sink realism about lost souls.

Alexandre Rockwell has carved a career in independent films by making very low-budget items with friends and family, often sharing cast and crew from one film to the next. Three of his films, each from a different decade, are streaming on OVIDtv this month.

Rather than go to a US film school, Rockwell went to Paris and apprenticed with his grandfather, the pioneering animator Alexandre Alexeieff. After making several shorts, Rockwell made a German feature, Lenz (1982), a literary adaptation of Georg Büchner’s 1836 novella about a writer’s descent into madness. Its success in Germany explains why that country’s public-TV channel, ZDF, ponied up the financing for Rockwell’s next film, Hero, his first study of America. Lenz, which is even more obscure than Hero, would be another interesting addition to OVID’s channel, so let’s hope it shows up one day.

Hero (1983)

Without admitting it, most American films simply remake The Wizard of Oz, one of the culture’s foundational myths. Rockwell’s Hero admits it openly by including renditions of “Over the Rainbow” and “We’re Off to See the Wizard”, and the central young woman wears red shoes. These recurring elements signal a film of American Surrealism, a choice that flies in the face of shoestring indie cinema.

The heart of Hero is 15-year-old Paul (Paul Rockwell), who uses crutches due to a touch of cerebral palsy. Surreal elements are introduced from the start, not only via Expressionist colors and compositions but through the fact that Paul hallucinates a father-figure American Indian (William Blue House Johnson). Among other remarks, the Indian recounts a myth about a mouse who takes a journey and turns into an eagle. This Indian appears throughout the story when Paul has the mouse crawling on his neck to symbolize himself.

Paul lives with an ad-hoc family consisting of two slightly older women who pretend to be his sisters and wish to adopt him legally. They’ll need his birth certificate from Truth or Consequences, New Mexico. This goal triggers the road trip that the narrative invents as it goes along. Many scenes appear to be highly improvised.

The women are Kim (Kim Flowers), who calls herself a Mexican and grew up in New Mexico, and Mika (Mika Yamada), who delivers some of her lines in Japanese. Kim and Mika’s relationship is thorny and moody, to say the least; we may presume they’re lovers. In one scene, Kim tells Mika to “say something American” and suggests “Mickey Mouse”. So we have more mouse mythology, the Hollywood kind blending with the Native American kind.

While driving their yellow cab through vast New Mexico landscapes, the party picks up a demented half-charming galoot named Cody (Cody Maher), who claims relation to General Custer and dresses semi-cowboy-ishly. He probably symbolizes a “real America”, though a flashback reveals he’s as sad and marginalized as the others despite his optimistic palaver. He’s introduced screaming and dancing in the mud while declaring that he doesn’t want to live the middle-class life, and then he smashes a television set because television disorients him. He carries a suitcase full of mythology, from cowboy magazines to Life‘s coverage of the moon landing.

To repeat: Hero is committed to Surrealism and Expressionism, not dingy kitchen-sink realism about lost souls. Scenes are disconnected, sometimes highly artificial, and often playful, even as the “story” fragments into a series of sequences that Wizard of Oz‘s ending can only explain. Hero won a Jury Prize at the US Film Festival, now better known as Sundance.

This description provides obvious links between Hero and Rockwell’s recent Sweet Thing (2020). With its iris shots, old-timey recordings, and scratchy patina, Sweet Thing shamelessly invokes the sentimentalism of silent films while exploring another mixed-racial road trip with children. While Paul in Hero receives advice from a fantasy Indian, the heroine in Sweet Thing imagines advice from Billie Holiday. The two films are almost 40 years apart and clearly emerge from the same mind.

In the Soup (1992)

Another Sundance winner, In the Soup, is the film that alerted most indie fans to Rockwell’s existence. The narrator-hero, Adolfo Rollo (Steve Buscemi), is an aspiring filmmaker who seems like a stand-in for Rockwell, although that may be too simple. In the first scene, he states that he’s fatherless and was raised by Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Friedrich Nietzsche, whom we see sitting there just like the Indian and Billie Holiday. Rockwell likes his guardian angels.

In the Soup has two more angels. One is Adolfo’s neighbor Angelica (Jennifer Beals, who was then Mrs. Rockwell), who has more troubles than we can list and whom Adolfo wants to cast as a literal angel in his script, Unconditional Surrender. A more direct guardian angel is Joe (Seymour Cassel), a loud, gregarious, mustached, larger-than-life gangster who, out of the blue, offers to finance Adolfo’s pretentious.

Both charming and overbearing, Joe pulls Adolfo into criminal fundraising schemes. Joe’s so handsy and kissy and dancey that Adolfo’s getting more (unwelcome) action from him than from Angelica. When Adolfo drops names like Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Andrei Tarkovsky (and we see a very Tarkovsky dream sequence), Joe calls him insecure and says people like to watch love stories “that grab you by the balls”. This will later have a literal application. Their half-bromance, half-father-figure life lessons become the love story, complete with comedy and melodrama.

Through these easy-going, crowd-pleasing elements, Rockwell examines the issue of how to finance a film and what shady deals or people may be involved. More deeply, he wrestles with the eternal question of “serious art” vs. what an ordinary audience presumably wants. He seems to arrive at the answer that a filmmaker can be honest and meaningful by beginning with his experiences. This doesn’t mean that Rockwell met a benevolent gangster, of course, only that Rockwell takes certain elements he must have known and used them as a basis for entertainment.

Phil Parmet deserves credit for the gorgeous high-contrast black and white photography, which was one way to signal “indie” in the ’90s. Prominent in the cast are Stanley Tucci and Will Patton. Jim Jarmusch and Carol Kane have cameos as sleazy producers. Minor roles include Sam Rockwell (unrelated to Alexandre), Pat Moya, Debi Mazar, Elizabeth Bracco (also in charge of costumes), Rockets Redglare, and Sully Boyar. The characters played by Steven Randazzo and Francesco Messina reappear as the focus of Rockwell’s Louis and Frank (1998), co-starring Tony Curtis.

Little Feet (2013)

Only an hour in length, Little Feet is the direct forerunner to Sweet Thing because both films star the filmmaker’s children, Lana and Nico Rockwell, as siblings more or less like themselves. Both films use the intimacy of handheld video cameras in largely improvised scenes owing something to John Cassavetes, the difference being that Cassavetes used intense rehearsal of a kind you can’t do with kids. In the closing credits of Little Feet, Rockwell thanks Cassavetes, Werner Herzog, Jean Vigo, and Buster Keaton, so he still doesn’t resist naming idols.

Little Feet‘s opening shot looks through the water of a goldfish bowl, and this motif of filming through water will continue throughout the anecdotal story. The slightly older Lana takes care of her baby brother while dad works, and then she kind of takes care of dad by tucking him in and rolling his cigarettes in gin for him. One fine day, the siblings meet a new boy next door (Rene Cuante) and decide to journey across Los Angeles and the Echo Park area to the ocean. The casual freedom they take upon themselves is scary.

That’s the whole story, which comprises a thousand little details of behavior plus encounters with a few strangers. Little Feet harks back to Hero in the inclusion of found surrealism, from animal masks and costumes to the symbolic interpretation of electrical pylons. Dressing as a panda is part of daddy’s job, so Rockwell makes the point that capitalism turns us into Surrealists.

Shot mostly in black and white, Little Feet has been well under the radar, having debuted in Toronto in 2013 and opened in New York more than a year later. At times Little Feet seems like the rough draft for Sweet Thing. For example, the filmmaker appears briefly as the dad in Little Feet and so strongly resembles Will Patton that you can see why Patton was cast as the dad in Sweet Thing.

Two more inter-textual details: a song on the soundtrack of Little Feet, Don Cherry’s “Rolando Alphonso”, is also heard in In the Soup. Also, In the Soup contains one brief shot of a hotel bellhop in classic uniform; Rockwell and Beals would contribute a segment to the bellhop comedy Four Rooms (1995).

Watching a filmmaker’s decades-long output one after the other brings personal obsessions and motifs into focus. As we’ve hinted, Rockwell has made several more films besides this over 40 years, so a further roundup would be welcome.