The Plastic Dome of Norma Jean
(Flicker Alley clip)

The DIY Effect on Self-Funded Director Juleen Compton’s Dramas

Juleen Compton’s little-known ’60s films, Truffaut-effected Stranded and Mekas’-affirming The Plastic Dome of Norma Jean, have been lovingly restored thanks to her work ethic in a completely different field.

Cinematic Journeys: Two Films by Juleen Compton
Juleen Compton
Flicker Alley
30 December 2022

Those especially interested in women filmmakers are probably unfamiliar with Juleen Compton, who wrote and directed two independent features in the 1960s. Now’s the time to cure our cluelessness. UCLA Film & Television Archive has beautifully restored these black and white films, and Flicker Alley puts them on Blu-ray as Cinematic Journeys: Two Films by Juleen Compton.

Compton’s Truffaut-Effected
Stranded (1965)

Stranded is several things. It’s an observational “nothing happens” film about three tourists on summer vacation in Greece. It’s an existential meditation on passing time, the need to do good work while young, and the promise that everything fades into ruins. It’s an unusual glimpse at bohemians of flexible sexuality at a time when films didn’t talk about that.

Least importantly, it’s a film so besotted with Francois Truffaut‘s Jules et Jim (1962) that one scene evokes it openly. Most importantly, it’s a film that inverts Truffaut’s agenda by focusing on the POV of a restless woman instead of the men under her spell, a woman with the courage to answer “I don’t know” when asked what she wants. Only what she doesn’t want seems clear, and what she doesn’t want is the “normal” paths open for her. Once, she refers to “normal people” in a way that makes it clear she’s not one.

Stranded‘s opening shot is extravagant and beautiful: a helicopter panorama around the Acropolis. Today it would be done with a drone camera, but logistics were more complex in the ’60s, and cinematographer Demos Sakeyyariose (in his only film credit on IMDB) had his work cut out.

Then the image presents a man and woman arguing near the ruins, in what might possibly be a nod to Roberto Rossellini‘s Voyage to Italy (1954). We can’t hear them, and we can’t even see the woman under her floppy sunhat, but their body language shows an argument in which the man towers over her harshly. When we finally catch some dialogue (and I presume all or most of Stranded is post-synched), it’s something about his inability to go with her because he must work with a big American film crew. He says he can’t be a man if he follows her.

She walks away, at one point turning to mock his remarks and adding, “Stupid, stupid, stupid!” In critic Richard Brody’s review, printed in the booklet, he says she’s quoting Barbara Bel Geddes in Alfred Hitchcock‘s Vertigo (1958). To me, she’s just as likely to be quoting Ed Wood‘s Plan 9 from Outer Space (1957), but it needn’t be a quotation, just a normal expostulation.

The woman arrives at the shore with her little dog and proceeds to wander into the waves in her dress. This seems to be some form of suicide attempt unless it’s only a symbolic gesture, but a passing Greek hunk must fish her out. These scenes also adopt the helicopter’s magnificent god’s-eye-view. I imagine the copter was rented for the day, and they had sense enough to get full value. Our heroine presumably emerges from the waves reborn as a new woman, like Venus, who will think twice or thrice before committing to romance.

So Raina (Compton) has just broken up with an angry boyfriend named Jeff (Ken Gaherity), and we now learn they’ve been part of a four-person tour group. The other two members are Bob (future television star Gary Collins), a tall, blond, handsome leading-man type, and a little French painter named Olivier (Gian Pietro Calasso). Now the quartet is broken. Raina, Bob, and Olivier will charter a rickety boat to visit Greek islands because Bob’s all excited about ruins.

In the group’s brief hotel scene before finding the boat, where we see the last of the angry Jeff and meet the other two men, Raina remarks that the locals are probably curious to know “who does what to whom”. Bob answers, “If they follow us home, they still won’t know.” The ambiguity of their relationships is one of Stranded‘s themes. Although Bob and Raina always sleep apart until the flea-bitten final sequence, he appears to regard them as “together” now that Jeff is gone. They’ve performed a duet in a Broadway musical. From the side, it rather appears as though Bob and Olivier are together, but Olivier is forever chasing after local specimens of manly virtue.

“I have so much love to give,” Olivier moans to Raina. Although he gets beaten and relieved of his cash and fears discovery, it must seem to Raina that he has a kind of tomcat freedom. Bob’s rancor toward Olivier might be because of his wandering eye, but a more likely interpretation is that either Bob doesn’t know about Olivier or that he knows and dislikes him. He puts up with Olivier because Raina tells him to accept him.

Stranded‘s minor surprise is that shirtless Greek shipmate Nico (Alkis Yannakas) is the same hero who rescued Raina from the ocean. In the most daring scene of its time, Raina takes a moonlight skinny dip. When Nico joins her, they have a significant fade-out. But if we’re expecting some decisive romantic resolution there, we’re barking up the wrong tree, and it’s the same if we expect Raina to accept Bob’s offer to settle down when he goes to work for his father. The final image will be her platonic drive with Olivier, who represents the artistic life.

Stranded has the free, improvised feeling of many French New Wave films, a sense that it can do whatever occurs to it. That explains the distorted lensing of a scene where Raina, Bob, and Olivier smoke weird tobacco provided by “one of my beatnik friends” and begin babbling nonsense. Amid the nonsense, however, is Olivier’s sleepy assertion that he must work now while he’s young and his generation is still important. Casually tossed off, this may be Stranded‘s overriding message.

The acting throughout is self-conscious, gestural, and non-naturalistic. This is partly because the friends are constantly “acting” for each other, trying to be amusing, and this is their normal mode of conducting themselves. I think it’s also a deliberate decision to distance these characters and their movie world from the viewer. The Greeks, like Nico, aren’t portrayed like this; only the privileged tourist outsiders who have arrived to pay them and be exploited are caricatures of the type. Our central figures in this vacation film are continually phony and can’t escape themselves.

The fact that a woman made Stranded shows itself variously, such as the scene where Raina’s brazenly aware of being the only woman dancing in a roomful of men giving her the eye, or the moment when a Greek man sits down at Raina’s table and starts talking before Nico shines him on. During Raina’s final scenes with Bob, there’s more than one shot where she seems to look directly into the camera, like Jean Seberg at the end of Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless (A bout de souffle, 1959).

According to the UCLA Library Film & Television Archive website, Compton made Stranded for under $300,000, and it played out of competition at Cannes and then in Paris. That was it. This thoughtful, pretty, personal postcard of a film, which clearly has little investment in standard realism, doesn’t prepare us for the originality of The Plastic Dome of Norma Jean, which does things we can’t expect.

Perverse Digressions in The Plastic Dome of Norma Jean (1966)

The blonde and naïve Norma Jean (Sharon Henesy) seems named after Marilyn Monroe, who died in 1962, so The Plastic Dome of Norma Jean‘s tragic arc is predictable, but the details along the path are fresh and odd. However, the commentary states that Compton didn’t initially make the Monroe connection when conceiving the film, although it seemed clear to her afterward.

As with StrandedThe Plastic Dome of Norma Jean opens with beautiful black and white high-angle photography from the get-go, this time shot by Roger Barlow. The story finds Norma Jean and the equally white-blond Vance (Robert Gentry), whom I believe is her brother, buying a large plastic dome tent, which they intend to set up in the town of Table Rock, Missouri, for a kind of musical attraction.

They discuss the fact that Norma Jean has unpredictable psychic flashes and feelings. The first bizarre incident is that she seems to summon an open Volkswagen convertible with three black-clad musicians who spontaneously perform a garage rock number dubbed by the Duprees. Their songs provide the rest of the film’s music, although the opening credits feature a lush theme by Michel Legrand.

The three musicians are the somewhat simple Andy (Sam Waterston in his debut film), little Francis (Skip Hinnant), and the exploitive alpha leader Bobo (Marco St. John), who refers to himself in the third person and basically takes control of Norma Jean immediately. He seizes on the notion that she can use her powers for a musical fortune-telling show.

In this manner, Norma Jean belongs to a minor strain in American cinema, running from Frank Capra‘s The Miracle Woman (1931) to Daniel Petrie‘s Resurrection (1980). Those were films about faith healers, and Norma Jean isn’t that. On the contrary, she unwittingly does damage, which is another facet of the film’s originality. But all these films examine the ambiguous power of strange women who achieve fame through apparently supernatural means.

The weirdest sequence in The Plastic Dome of Norma Jean finds some characters dressing up in the forest like they’re channeling Alice in Wonderland’s mad tea party. There’s even a white rabbit. They spot an odd fellow in a tree who will show up again at the end. This surrealism is an example of Compton giving herself permission to throw in whatever perverse digression she wants, and I could have used more examples before the story settles into its relatively routine morality tale of female exploitation.

The ending is sheer contrived melodrama in a backwoods dump, and I wanted to shake Norma Jean and Vance along with her. It’s canny that the media and television news, local mayoral politics, legal contracts, a kind of religious tent-revivalism, and rock ‘n’ roll blend smoothly into this scenario. Still, you’d think Norma Jean’s magical ability to foresee danger would have helped her better, and she’s often frustratingly passive in her own film. The best aspect of this manifestation of the “broken starlet” cliché is that coming from a woman creator, it includes more spiky and original touches than most. Bobo is a closely observed monster of emotional manipulation.

By the way, the dialogue throws in a sly reference to “the old Mekas place”. That’s a nod to Jonas Mekas, the pope of American avant-garde and personal cinema. It’s one of the many pleasurable little signs that Compton was plugged into her contemporary film world, even though her films also seem to drop in from an alternate universe.

Archivist and author Maya Montañez Smukler provides informative commentary with filmmaker Allison Anders. They discuss other rock films such as A Hard Day’s Night (Richard Lester, 1964) and Having a Wild Weekend (John Boorman, 1965). They compare Norma Jean with other iconic women characters of the day, such as Holly Golightly and Lolita.

Smukler adds a 2021 Zoom interview with the nonagenarian Compton, who financed her films by making money in real estate. With both films, she boldly adopts the auteur credit “A film by Juleen Compton”. It turns out you can be the boss when you’re writing the checks. That’s a bit of concrete advice most youngsters can’t follow, but her efforts to gain a foothold in the Hollywood system still petered out. Maybe she should have stayed strictly indie.

Based on conversations with Compton, Smukler gathered that Compton’s financial self-reliance contained a hidden trap or conundrum. Without any need to repay non-existent investors, Compton felt no great drive to sell her films to distributors or exhibitors. She apparently felt that just having the films would be a sufficient calling card for furthering her career. It didn’t work like that. Despite her real estate background, she was a maker but not a seller. Stranded and The Plastic Dome of Norma Jean express her thoughts about safe paths and huckstering one’s talent.

Nevertheless, Compton opines that she’s had a lucky and adventurous life, and it rather sounds like it. Her films have been lovingly restored because she donated the money from her foundation; otherwise, we’d never have heard of them. As she says at one point, if you want something done, you’ve got to do it yourself.