Fiction by Ethan Warren
“I didn’t like the way things seemed, but the way they seemed was the way they were, so that’s everything”
The first film, completed late in the fall of 1968, lasts only three ragged minutes. Entitled Meeting, it begins with a middle-aged, pot-bellied man, dressed in an argyle sweater and dingy boxer shorts, entering a plain gray room that seems to balance on the edge of existence. The ceiling is slanted dramatically, and though there are no windows, light appears to come from inexplicable angles, lending the film an over-exposed, blinding quality.
The man—played by the director himself—enters with a clear sense of purpose, and approaches something seated on a plain wooden chair. To call this something a person doesn’t seem quite right—its arms and legs are just a bit too long, and its joints seem to follow biological urges utterly alien to our own; its facial features are all either a bit too large or a bit too small, either a bit too close together or a bit too far apart—and as the man approaches, it seems to smile, both welcoming and ominous.
The man goes to the creature and cups its cheek with a lover’s tenderness. The creature touches the man’s face as well. They hold the pose for a long moment, and then they move to touch each other’s shoulders, and then arms, before finally clasping hands, his marked by four decades of life, the creature’s moving with the lurching quality of a body in perpetual seizure. It’s hard to say quite how, but we know that an understanding has passed between the man and the creature.
And then the man begins to cry hot and violent tears, his sobs yanked from his chest by an unseen thread. The creature stands, calm as ever, and the man grabs the chair and uses it to beat the walls, gouging plaster and raining splinters, the rough wood shattering in his hands.
Those hands start bleeding, staining the wood as it disintegrates. And all the while, a buzzing like thousands of bees operating on thousands of frequencies slowly overtakes the soundtrack, mingling with the man’s howls until they’re indistinguishable.
The last thirty seconds of this brief, stark film comprise a static shot of the creature’s hands, its fingers just a bit too long, its knuckles perhaps just a bit too pliable. It’s impossible to discern the significance of this shot, much though cinephiles have tried in the ensuing decades. The peculiar hands just sit in the frame until the viewer’s mind starts to reel. Only then do we cut to black.
“I suppose there must have been something about Malcom’s dreams that made me fall in love with him. Something about the passion with which he described them to me. I don’t know what else it could have been. And I have wondered.”
This is one of the few direct statements offered by Cilla Alfredson in her 2011 Q&A at New York’s Angelika Film Center. This rare public appearance was moderated by NYU Professor Lloyd Ramsay whose slim book, The Fathomless Vision of Malcom Strickland, was published alongside the digital restoration of the four short films Strickland produced between 1968 and 1971. In a video available on YouTube, Ramsay is patient and warm as he tries to coax Alfredson into reminiscing on her relationship with this most inscrutable of artists. But she is evasive and cold until he happens to ask how the couple met. Only then does the ice melt for the length of one memory.
“We were at a party—it was at my advisor’s house, actually—and I had probably overserved myself a bit on the red wine, but this man walked in.” The video, seemingly uploaded directly from a smartphone, is shot from a preposterously bad angle, but still we can see a smile flicker across her face as she recalls the spring night almost sixty years earlier when two young graduate students who would soon be husband and wife became acquainted at a party in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
“He wasn’t much to look at back then,” she says, and as she recalls the story, her speech is nostalgic but halting, as though she’s both excavating and still processing this long-ago meeting. “He needed a haircut, he needed to lay off the fatty foods, but we got to talking and he started to tell me about these dreams he had. Every night, all night, these – and I said, Those sound more like nightmares. They were really quite ugly. But he described them with such detail, and such passion, and he said they didn’t frighten him. Not at all. Which is quite – well, you’ve all seen the films. At any rate, maybe it was the wine, maybe it was the passion in his voice – I knew he would be an artist, had the soul of an artist, and I always did have a weakness – yes, I fell in love with him that night somehow. And I just kept falling for eighteen years.”
Alfredson, who reverted to her maiden name in the 1980s after personally declaring her marriage void, tends to be defiantly silent when asked to discuss Strickland, but details have been pieced together over the years. We know she spent the first ten years of their marriage assisting in various research projects at the Harvard Museum of Natural History, while he did menial work at local TV stations, seemingly unable to hold down a job. And so we know that when she received her grant in 1964 to travel to the mountains of Virginia for her work with the Ash People, he was entirely available and eager to make the journey with her.
The attendees at the Angelika Q&A in 2011, though, have little interest in the marriage, little interest in Alfredson herself at all. The young men who line up at the microphone—the type of slightly awkward, slightly obsessive ones who might think deeply about a body of work that totals only sixty minutes and has never been commercially available—are here for any shred of an answer to the myriad questions that have lingered around her husband’s work for decades.
The first young man who steps to the microphone is shy, his voice quaking. “Do you think it’s possible the masks, and the – do you think it’s possible it could be a kind of breathable latex? Did you ever see him working with anything like that?”
“Malcom was private about his work,” she answers.
The second young man is more assertive, willing to badger her. “There are no puppeteers listed in the credits for Lifespan, but the Mantigo has to be – ”
“Technical questions about Malcom’s work can be addressed to his collaborators,” Alfredson snaps.
“All due respect, none of them – ”
“I’d prefer to answer another question.” Her voice is firm, and an usher hustles the young man aside.
A third young man steps to the microphone. “So nobody’s ever wanted to try and finish The Barrels, I guess, but – ”
“I’m sorry,” Alfredson says, standing abruptly, “but I’m a very old woman and I need to get some rest.”
And then the video ends. Alfredson has not made a public appearance since.
If there’s a thematic throughline in Malcom Strickland’s scant filmography, it might be a primal dismantling of social norms. In Meeting, we can infer an upending of the very idea of communication. Punch Card, his third and longest completed film, is clearly a satire of mundane bureaucratic rituals, even as its last quarter spirals into Grand Guignol hysteria. But his most evocatively enigmatic film, the fifteen-minute Lifespan, offers the richest density of detail, and seems the closest Strickland came to volunteering his perspective on relationships. If you were looking for textual evidence to suggest Malcom Strickland may have been an unfit romantic partner, Lifespan would seem to offer an abundance.
The film is narrated in voice-over by a young girl, who opens the story by informing us, “This is the story of what happened when I was a grownup.” Before we’ve even begun, we know we’re in a world that operates on rules quite different from our own.
The film—shot in sickly under-saturated 8mm—begins on the stony banks of a calm, rural river. A young woman walks along in peasant clothes, as the narration offers mundane but confusing details: “I was twenty years old and at the bottom of a well. When I got that way, I always had to cry, even though they said I wouldn’t.” The girl’s voice has a detached quality that makes it feel almost like she’s learned the script phonetically.
The young woman encounters a creature on the riverbank; it looks much like the one in Meeting—the same too-long limbs, the same mismatched facial features that seem to have been smashed on haphazardly—though significantly larger, and it moves with a jerking fluidity so unearthly it’s stomach-churning. This creature (whom the little girl refers to as “the very nice man,” leading to its classification in Strickland studies, along with the Meeting creature, as Nicemen) appears to be on the verge of death, gasping and clawing at the ground. The young woman digs a hole in the earth and pulls out two handfuls of red slop, which the Niceman devours with disgusting abandon (“I liked to smell, and I liked to wrap my eyes,” the little girl says wistfully). The little girl sings a nursery rhyme about eight spotted dogs as the young woman and the Niceman begin a rough, carnal encounter that’s as alarming as it is sensual.
For a long stretch, the woman and the Niceman enact domestic rituals on the riverbank— the Niceman brushes the woman’s hair, the woman rubs the Niceman’s feet—and we come to understand that a great deal of time is passing as they build a life together. At this point, the Mantigo enters.
The Mantigo (so nicknamed by Strickland scholars as a portmanteau of the mythical beasts Manticore and Lampago) is a quadruped that bears similarities to the Nicemen, though the main point of comparison is how unaccountably wrong both look. The Mantigo’s knees appear to bend backwards, and its mouth is distended and drooping. Its eyes roll independently of one another and it seems perpetually out of breath, but it moves with tremendous speed and force.
No other figure in a Malcom Strickland film has invited nearly the discussion that the Mantigo has, merely for the question of how this effect was achieved. In the late 1960s, characters like these could only be rendered through stop motion animation, or puppetry, but the Mantigo seems to be neither. For that matter, as alluded to by the first Angelika questioner, the Nicemen are similarly inexplicable; if the actors wear masks or prosthetics, they’re shockingly advanced for their era. Whatever visual effects Strickland employed were decades ahead of their time, while evidence suggests he was operating on a shoestring budget.
The Mantigo is apparently jealous of the riverside relationship, so it murders the Niceman and takes its place—both domestic and carnal—in the woman’s life. We see the same routines enacted, and at this point, the little girl’s narration (“I didn’t like the way things seemed, but the way they seemed was the way they were, so that’s everything”) is joined by a sort of droning hymn sung by a guttural chorus. The young woman is visibly miserable, and finally she kills the Mantigo with her hands, a scene of violence so terrible that it begs to be peeked at through fingers. We cut to a shot of the same woman on the same riverbank, now aged into a grotesque, lonely old crone.
“And that’s what happened so now I died,” the little girl says as the film cuts to black.
Lifespan has been the subject of furious scrutiny and debate over the past fifty years, due in large part to the scarcity of information on its creation. The lead actress, who’d recently graduated from Boston University’s School of Theater, tragically took her life within a year of shooting, and the actress who voiced the little girl, now in her sixties and the owner of a chain of fast-casual restaurants in the Southwest, learned only years later what she had been working on. The few credited crew members who ever admitted to working on the film have refused to discuss the experience, and none of them pursued a career in the arts.
But this much is clear: if this is Malcom Strickland’s thesis on relationships, it seems a remarkably cynical one. As with all his work, everything from language to action is stripped to a point of elemental bluntness, and we’re left only with a romance marked by physical roughness, passionless coexistence, and sorrow. The presence of an animal figure with sexual and emotional needs equal to a humanoid one only layers a transgressive ugliness onto the proceedings.
So yes, based purely on the evidence presented in Lifespan, one could imagine why its creator may have struggled to maintain a healthy marriage.
It’s very difficult to visit the Ash People of Virginia, and they have little interest in visiting you.
Located in the Blue Ridge Mountains, at the end of a dirt road so long that anyone interested in driving in must bring along an extra tank of gas for the return trip, this community of just over 300 residents was founded in 1586 by a group expelled from the Roanoke Colony. Details as to the community’s history have been either lost to time or blended with legend, but a few facts are clear:
The Ash People (they dislike the nickname, but as their community has no other name, it’s stuck for better or worse), possess a unique genetic trait amplified over centuries of closed- loop reproduction that lends their skin a deep gray tone; a photograph of an Ash Person taken in monochrome or color shows no substantial difference.
A persistent myth claims that the early settlers were expelled from the Roanoke Colony for some sort of religious transgression, though the community vehemently maintains that this has been debunked by historians.
Due to their social isolation, the Ash People speak in a singsong patois that has roots in both rural American and extinct European dialects, as well as their own unique slang. The language also seems to be constantly evolving—and, some claim, decaying—at a faster rate than most any other spoken tongue. And this is what led a young ethnographer named Cilla Strickland to apply for a grant that allowed her and her husband Malcom to spend six months with the Ash People in 1965.
It would be a gross understatement to say that the Ash People have not kept up with the modern world. Travel is so time-consuming and treacherous that the community is largely self- sustaining. They grow what they eat, and purify what they drink; there’s no electrical power or plumbing, so the nights are lit by candles and the homes and furnishings are rough-hewn. Socially, the Ash People are neither primitive nor puritanical, and they aren’t particularly ignorant of modern culture. They’re simply happy with their lifestyle and disinterested in a world that rarely intrudes.
During their time with the Ash People, the Stricklands were hosted by a young man named Adonijah Bean, whose wife and son had recently died, leaving him with an excess of space and an abundance of loneliness. Cilla Strickland was the first researcher to attempt a thorough documentation of this isolated culture, and with only half a year to accomplish the task, she was by her own account distracted and harried, leaving little time for her husband. Which left him plenty of time to strike up a close friendship with their host, at least based on the correspondence between the two men that continued in the years following the Stricklands’ return to Massachusetts.
I be plum bored since thee go, Adonijah wrote in 1966. A good
darklark be zim interesting wee a buddy. A fellow can’t get to
aught mischief he be alone. Yet I be pondering aul yourn ideas,
and I conclude thee hafta make it true. Don think too much, don
queer theez head up. Thee vrien sent supplies for thee aid. No vear,
plenty zim fid that come vrom.
Obviously, parsing the language of the Ash People can be exhausting, and as their vocabulary and grammar seem in constant flux, no comprehensive dictionary has ever been attempted. But we can surmise that Malcom and Adonijah were in the habit of taking nighttime walks to discuss some sort of inspiration Malcom was experiencing (as well as possibly getting into some vague type of “mischief,” presumably of the innocent variety rather than the malicious) and that Adonijah was urging Malcom to follow through on whatever ideas he was cultivating.
As for what supplies Adonijah might have sent “for [Malcom’s] aid,” no answer has ever been confirmed. But Strickland enthusiasts have their pet suspicion.
The abstract and surreal nature of his films has led to a natural assumption that Strickland had a fondness for psychedelics. But Alfredson has claimed her husband had a puritanical disdain for the era’s drug culture. The child of two inveterate alcoholics, he never even drank in her presence.
But one paragraph in Alfredson’s 1969 book, The Singular Tongue of the Blue Ridge Mountains, has long been the basis for a common interpretation of Adonijah’s reference to supplies:
The community [Alfredson took great pains to avoid using the term
Ash People] distills a unique liquor, using the same red wheat they
use in their breads and cereals. This substance, which has an
alcohol content well in excess of most commercially available
liquors, is colloquially referred to as zinhaint (a term possibly
derived from the Forth and Bargy term for “sun,” and
Appalachian slang for “spirit” or “ghost”), and distilled for a
period of ten years in barrels that have been used continuously for
over three-hundred years, making them, as Elihu put it, hard and
scarred. The distillery is apparently located a few hundred feet
above town in a damp and temperate cave. Elihu referred to
several special barrels kept reserved for a surprise visit “vrom
dhicka [from that] angel.” However, the community is quick to
deny any such superstition, much as they prefer to avoid any topic
that might lead to religion.
To quote one post on the Malcom Strickland discussion page on Reddit, “Pardon my French, but come the fuck on. Anyone who thinks he wrote those movies without tripping balls is an idiot. The supplies were special-reserve zinhaint, case closed, I’d prefer to answer another question LOL.”
To be blunt, Punch Card is Malcom Strickland’s worst film.
It’s not a controversial opinion. At 40 minutes, it could easily be cut down by at least half. For most of the runtime, the imagery is pedestrian, and it lacks the cinematic eye of Lifespan and Meeting. Punch Card is Strickland’s third film in as many years, so perhaps this pace was just too trying for such a singular, insular artist, and his inspiration was flagging.
Shot in a black cube with spare set design and props, Punch Card tells the story of a workplace that bears similarities to both a bureaucratic office and a sweatshop (even for an artist who painted in broad strokes, this is a bit on the nose). About half the runtime is taken up by the abusive relationship between The Boss and The Worker, as The Boss berates an employee who seems to be doing his best at whatever this job is. The Boss hurls invective at The Worker, criticizing his every move, and whenever The Worker attempts to get a word in edgewise, The Boss steamrolls him with another diatribe.
It’s the first Strickland film to feature synced dialogue, which has been the main focus of critical discussion of Punch Card. And that’s because the copious reams of dialogue were written in what’s been dubbed Stricklese.
Stricklese is a seemingly constructed language. Linguists who’ve studied Punch Card agree that it has phonology, grammar, and vocabulary, but while there have been extensive attempts to translate the film, all have come up short. No written screenplay has ever been recovered, so there’s nothing to decode, and Stricklese includes several sounds that bear no resemblance to sounds in any other natural language, sounds that linguists have struggled to even reproduce, much less classify.
To make matters worse, no existent print of Punch Card includes any credits, so no actors or crew have ever been identified. With nobody to provide background or context, there’s nothing to prove Strickland didn’t simply conjure Punch Card out of thin air.
And then, of course, there’s The Herald.
The Herald bears similarities to the Nicemen of the other two shorts, but The Herald is much larger (at least eleven feet tall) and seems to emit light from an inner power source—to say The Herald glows would understate this dazzling effect. The Herald’s face is disproportionately large, and its features are disproportionately small, but there’s a compelling grace and beauty to the imbalance that render this creature unnervingly breathtaking.
The Herald appears to The Worker just as he reaches the point of collapse, and they begin a clandestine relationship, including erotic encounters that seem to draw on some sort of psychic link to achieve sexual satisfaction—The Worker’s pleasure seems very much unsimulated, though it’s difficult to identify exactly what’s happening between the pair. The Boss, naturally, is unhappy with his employee’s newfound joy, and with the film nearly over, we can imagine we’re headed for one of a few predictable conclusions.
But the conclusion we do arrive at is utterly unpredictable. The Boss utters one syllable to The Worker that apparently seals an agreement between them, and without another thought, the two of them savagely murder The Herald and then spend an agonizing period of time desecrating the corpse as the light source flickers and goes out. For such a bare story told in a made-up language, the sequence is oddly heartbreaking, and we begin to hate the two men, and to long for their punishment, which makes it all the more satisfying when the ink-black walls around them sprout ink-black arms—first dozens, then hundreds—that use their ink-black fingers to caress the two sadists, overwhelming them until they collapse into shrieking tears, which we observe over the course of a long, long fade to black. It’s the only spoken sound in Punch Card that we can fully understand. Shrieks of existential pain and terror need no translation.
To suggest Strickland was experiencing existential pain of his own at this time would be presumptuous. But we can surmise that, on some level, all was not well.
In the fall of 1970, buoyed by the success of her book on the Ash People, his wife Cilla traveled to the University of Illinois at Springfield to spend a semester as a visiting lecturer. By her own admission, she visited home rarely, and was consumed by her work. Malcom, for his part, had managed to convince student film societies at Boston-area colleges to host screenings of his work (needless to say, these screenings occurred late at night, and word quickly spread that they were not for everyone, and best enjoyed under the influence). If she was, for the first time, seeing signs that her husband might be on the verge of finally breaking through to professional success, she would have had every reason to think he would be occupied and fulfilled in her absence.
Evidence, however, suggests that while he may have been occupied, he was less than fulfilled. Around this time, Adonijah Bean’s correspondence with Strickland picked up, at least based on Adonijah’s letters found in Strickland’s personal effects. Adonijah sent at least 12 lengthy letters between September and November of that year, an impressive rate given the difficulty of getting any mail in and out of his remote community.
Nodhing come to thee yet? Adonijah wrote in early September.
Be patient, aul comes trugh soon or late, he wrote two weeks later.
Gotta sleep. Liketa come when thee sleep, he wrote in mid-October.
No vear. Reckon it gets quare better with sleep, he wrote in late October, closing the letter with, Biya!, the typical Ash Person expression of excitement and encouragement.
Fade about thee get more buddies? Wee oree, might get simpler, he wrote in early November.
Thee’s in mine thoughts, and thee’s in mine heart. Fade theezil’s head is plum special, buddy. I swan, I knew dhicke since I met thee, he wrote in late November, before a two-month gap in the records of their correspondence.
Through the thick dialect, we can glimpse words of support to a friend whose self- confidence was failing, and a suggestion that he might open himself up to collaboration with others.
It would appear Strickland took this advice, at least in a fashion. After a brief reunion with his wife at Thanksgiving, he featured in a brief item in an early December issue of daily student newspaper The Harvard Crimson:
Local underground filmmaker Malcom Strickland staged a bizarre
display on the quad Tuesday evening, begging passersby and
onlookers to “dream with [him].” The few students who are
familiar with Mr. Strickland’s work suggested he might have been
either attempting to drum up publicity for an upcoming screening,
or recruiting artistic partners. But according to Frank Denham
’72, who has Hollywood aspirations of his own and approached
him hoping to talk shop, Mr. Strickland evaded Frank’s attempts at
professional discussion, instead begging him to describe his
previous night’s dreams in as much detail as possible, then asking
where Frank slept. “I think he might have been looking for
inspiration for a script.” Frank said. “But it was a tense
conversation, if you can call it a conversation, and I was sort of
relieved when security made him leave. But if there’s ever another
showing of any of his movies, I really recommend it. Maybe that’s
just what genius looks like.”
By the Way of the Sunsetting, Malcom Strickland’s fourth and (as of this writing) final short film lasts 98 seconds. Filmed, like Punch Card, in a black box, the film’s first 84 seconds comprise an unbroken shot of a Niceman, its face painted black and its body painted white, shrieking as the camera moves in, the frame jerking and shaking as though the camera operator is in terrible distress.
At the 85th second, another Niceman (this one about a third taller than the first, and bearing a gaping wound in its torso) lurches into the frame. It goes to the first Niceman, grabs it by the ears, and wrenches its head from its body. The headless body falls with a ragdoll gracelessness, but rather than blood, what appears to be a thick and endless earthworm slithers from the severed throat.
The final second is thought to be the middle part of a longer Stricklese word, but the beginning and end are cut off abruptly, leaving only two nearly-unpronounceable syllables. As with Punch Card, there are no credits attached.
This, at least, represents something like a consensus version of the film’s events. Perhaps due to its brief length and current unavailability on home video or streaming services, descriptions of the film are strangely divergent, even among audience members at the same screening. This description is close to that offered by Prof. Lloyd Ramsay in The Fathomless Vision of Malcom Strickland.
However, I have altered the description slightly to incorporate some of my own personal experiences of the film. And, to be candid, I have always found it more than a little bit eerie when another viewer denies having seen the earthworm, given how clearly visible it is. But, as differences in color acuity demonstrate, every eye perceives the world a bit differently.
As for the title, which has no clear connection to the events of the film, it was seemingly drawn from Visio sancti Pauli, a third-century apocryphal gospel purporting to be a first-person description of Hell.
According to the translation by British scholar M.R. James: And I went with the angel and he took me by the way of the sunsetting…I looked and there was no light in that place, but darkness and sorrow and sadness: and I sighed.
Apparently, Adonijah’s letters weren’t doing the trick in lifting his friend’s spirits. And so he did something extremely rare for an Ash Person: he came to visit.
At the time, Adonijah’s trip was ostensibly to assist Cilla Strickland with updates and addendums to her book, so all travel and accommodation expenses were approved by The Keflavík Fund (since renamed The Hilmarsson Foundation for Ethnographic Research). With the passage of time, though, it’s come to seem much more likely that this was cover for a more furtive collaboration between himself and Malcom.
Adonijah kept up his end of the bargain with Cilla. Over the course of six months, the two of them completed extensive appendices to her book, leading to the publication of a new and updated edition only two years after the initial one. The tone of her notes, and her acknowledgement section, suggests a warm and satisfying partnership, to the extent that she by now considered Adonijah part of the family. She has even mentioned having worked on a draft of a more informal article detailing the experience of introducing Adonijah to metropolitan life, documenting his awed reactions to everything from supermarkets to an unforgettable visit to Fenway Park.
Around this time, Cilla has since alluded, Malcom fell into what she perceived to be a deep depression, marked by spending most of the day asleep. She has blamed herself for not taking his distraction more seriously, but claimed she chalked it up to his artistic temperament— though she never said as much, some of her comments do suggest she was growing frustrated with a husband prone to what looked like moping. Struggling to manage this disconnect during a time of professional pressure, she moved into the guest room after Adonijah offered to sleep on the pull-out sofa downstairs.
In large part, this is our picture of the summer and fall of 1971: three people sharing a house but passing like ships in the night. We know that in this period, Malcom Strickland wrote the screenplay, and then shot the raw footage, for the feature film The Barrels. Whether Adonijah was conspiring with him while Malcom’s wife slept, we can’t be sure, but even if he was depressed, it’s not conceivable that Malcom slept twenty-four hours at a time, and in her acknowledgments, Cilla does mention Adonijah often “burned the midnight oil.”
It’s at this point that it becomes most frustrating that we know so little about the biography of Malcom Strickland, because it means we know even less about The Barrels
As of this writing, The Barrels exists only as canisters of celluloid. The sound has never been synced, the 21st century has seen no effort to digitize the footage, and there has been no attempt to begin a rough assembly.
Descriptions of the footage are vague at best. It would seem Strickland intended the film to run between 90 and 120 minutes, and it does seem there was an attempt at conventional plotting, with a protagonist on some sort of journey. By one account, the footage could be compared to, “A sort of Alice in Wonderland or Wizard of Oz kind of thing, but a lot more…”
This quote, from a post-production expert specializing in film restoration, trails off because the individual (who preferred not to be named) suffered what appeared to be a brief attack of stress.
Prof. Lloyd Ramsay, who was granted a look at six out-of-context film cels, has described the imagery as “in terms of ambition, leaps and bounds beyond [Strickland’s] short efforts” featuring “landscapes and creature design to rival the 21st century’s most accomplished fantasy efforts.”
“Each cel almost seems like it was taken from a different film, the stylistic differences are so striking,” Prof. Ramsay said in a 2015 interview with The Dissolve’s Scott Tobias promoting the new edition of The Fathomless Vision of Malcom Strickland. “It’s impossible to guess what the story might have been. It looks like it might have been a nauseating watch, that’s for sure, much moreso than the shorts. But it also might have changed the course of filmmaking, at least in the cult world of your Lynches and your Jodorowskys.”
In 2016, a crowdfunding campaign was launched to raise sufficient funds to complete, and release, The Barrels, with a stretch goal of finally making the short films commercially available. Donor rewards included new limited-edition Mondo wall art, and T-shirts to be produced by vintage clothing company Junk Food. With the help of a grassroots social media push, the campaign was fully funded within weeks. It looked, for a brief moment, as though Malcom Strickland’s dreams were on the verge of crossing over into the mainstream.
But there is currently no plan in place to complete the campaign’s objectives. Every post- production and restoration professional who’s viewed the footage has declined the project immediately, and refused to discuss the film’s content. “I like to sleep at night,” one expert said (also preferring anonymity), “so I don’t think about what I looked at. And I consider it my social
responsibility to make sure nobody else does. I’m sorry if that’s frustrating to people, but I wouldn’t want to burden them with having to know how right I am.”
Malcom Strickland left Massachusetts without a trace in 1972. If he’s still alive, he would be 87 years old.
The most significant update to the 2015 edition of The Fathomless Vision of Malcom Strickland is a new interview with Cilla Alfredson, her first since her 2011 Angelika appearance. In this interview, she is candid in a way she’s never been, seemingly bolstered by a trust built between herself and Prof. Ramsay.
CA: Yes, he does live with Adonijah now. Well, I don’t know that for sure. I should say, Adonijah knows where Malcom is.
LR: But you haven’t spoken to him?
CA: No. I tried to reach him a few times early on. Adonijah made it clear that this wasn’t in Malcom’s best interest.
LR: Did you ever go back to Virginia to try and find him yourself?
CA: I got the distinct sense this would be a futile effort, and to be honest, not one I was sure I wanted to put forth.
LR: And did you attempt to obtain a divorce?
CA: Again, the effort required – I was fairly certain I wouldn’t be getting married again, so I just think of myself as a widow. Legally, the marriage can’t be declared void, but to me, it’s void.
By her own account, she did receive one letter in 1991, written in Adonijah’s handwriting and purporting to be a transcript of a message from Malcom. She burned it upon reading it and claims to have erased its content from her memory. “You want to leave memories as they are,” she has said. “You don’t want anything new and…complicated, or…you just can’t…”
As seems to happen so often when people try to discuss Malcom Strickland and his work, she’s forced to trail off into dark contemplations.
The 2015 interview between Alfredson and Prof. Ramsay ends with a discussion of what she knows about The Barrels, and her memories of its production. As with all of her husband’s films, she knows very little about how it was made—“It was his career,” she says. “He didn’t ask to come to work with me, I didn’t ask to go to work with him. We were both so consumed with work that home time was sacred.”—but when pressed, she offers her impressions.
“I found a few pages of the script one day. They were under the couch […] And I read them while he was sleeping, and when he woke up – I was shaken by then, and I said to him, How do you know all this? And he was so agitated, he didn’t want me to see the script. I don’t know if script was the right word, it was more of a – what’s the term? Treatment? A detailed description of scenes. Very, very detailed.”
She seems to lose the thread, so Prof. Ramsay prompts her to explain what she means about the content of the script, or treatment.
“Oh, I’m so sorry. My mind sometimes – especially about all this – it was my dreams. He had written down my dreams. […] And I never told him about – it wasn’t only that, of course, there were other images written down, and they were numbered and coded somehow, I’ve chalked it up to a formatting – something.”
Prof. Ramsay addresses the elephant in the room: does she put any stock in the theories that obsess some corners of the fan community suggesting the Strickland filmography is, in any way, influenced by legitimately supernatural abilities or forces?
In the interview transcript, this question is followed by: [extremely lengthy pause]. And then Alfredson offers a memory.
“One night, about three weeks into Adonijah’s visit, maybe four – I was sleeping in the guest room then – and I woke up one night. There was a pressure. It was very late at night. There was a pressure, right – [indicates sternum].
“And I woke up – with great difficulty – and – Malcom was sitting on me. Not with all his substantial weight. He had his knees by my side. But with enough. And I couldn’t move. And he was looking at me. And he didn’t seem surprised, he seemed dazed. That’s not quite right. He seemed focused. I heard something moving around out in the hall. I thought it was Adonijah. I think it was. And Malcom left. Calmly. And I didn’t say anything. But later he told me he’d been sleepwalking recently. He said it casually. But casually in that way you talk when you want someone to hear you without – but he was awake. I could always tell the difference.
“I always knew when Malcom was dreaming.”
Ethan Warren is a staff writer for the online film journal Bright Wall/Dark Room. He is the writer/director of the 2018 independent feature film West of Her, hailed by critics as “enchanting” and “mesmerizingly beautiful.” His first full-length stage play, Why Are You Nowhere?, was the recipient of the Playwright’s Award for Staged Reading at the Midtown International Theatre Festival, and had its premiere production at Southeastern Louisiana University in 2017. A graduate of the MFA program at the University of North Carolina in Wilmington, he lives in the Boston area with his wife, Caitlin, and their daughter, Nora.