Monday, March 27, 2017
disappearance of an american family
by Douglas Messerli
Carlos Muguiro, Emilio Tomé, Sergio Oksman (screenwriters), Sergio Oksman (director) Uma História para os Modlin (The Story of the Modlins) / 2012
As strange as is Crystelle Moselle’s story of Manhattan-based wolfpack family (The Wolfpack, 2015), two years before Spanish director Sergio Oskman’s The Story of the Modlins takes us into the heart an even odder and more mysterious American family, Elmer, Margaret, and their young son Nelson Modlin, who, after Elmer appeared in a bit part in Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby, transported themselves to a dark, constantly shuttered Madrid apartment, where the father and mother lived for the next 30 years.
No one can quite know the family’s true story. The only evidence left is a large trove of photographs, notes, and tapes, and other ephemera found near a garbage bin on a Madrid side street, near their former apartment. The packages of unexplained materials left after the family’s deaths, were immediately recognized by the director, Oskman, to be of interest and value, but how he might perceive and organize this material was left up the director’s own imagination. Given the family’s isolation and absolute secrecy, there is no way of even establishing a true chronological track of the family’s strange activities, let alone a way of interpreting what they semi-artistic activities and rituals actually meant.
What he does piece together is that Margaret was born of a wealthy Carolina family, whose parents disinherited her after she took up an acting career and, especially when she quickly fell in love with the young would-be actor, Elmer. The couple, nonetheless, married, while Elmer, with delusions of grandeur moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career in acting, a career which, as for so many, ended nowhere. Playing bit parts on television and serials, Elmer, traditionally handsome but without, apparently, much of an acting ability, grew increasingly frustrated, while his wife increasingly moved into the art world, with a particular talent at sculpture-making.
Today, her art seems amateurish and crude, particularly when she later turns to painting, struggling to represent the entire Apocalypse, particularly with her beloved son, Nelson, as model.
But, quite obviously, something meaningful to the would-be artists happened before this, immediately after Elmer briefly appeared in Rosemary’s Baby as an on-looker at the very last scene, where-in Mia Farrow, knife in hand, joins the party celebrating the birth of the devil. Peering into the black-covered cradle she is, at first, shocked by what she sees, but ultimately cannot resist her motherly duties. But, of course, this is fiction, and the devil with the empty cradle is a thing of the imagination: we never see that horrible visage, and the cradle, so the documentary reports, was empty.
Yet, apparently, the Christian-loving Modlins did see something beyond what was presented on the screen. If it is hard to imagine what Elmer thought as he stood in that vast room in the Dakota Apartment building, it is not as impossible to imagine that he saw the end of his career; this was the biggest role in which he would ever appear. The family, it appears, decided to leave the society which had spurned it, embracing a culture they knew nothing about and whose language they did not speak to play out their own hallucinatory fascinations which might explain their own alternative dreams and Christian fundamentalist beliefs.
With the art of Margaret at the center of their lives, the family seemed to go into a kind of artful trance, with, evidently, Margaret—that, at least, is the presumption of the director—filming her young teenage son early in the mornings as he seemed play out almost ritual stances, but which almost suggest a perverse kind child pornography. And, even if the father was not directly involved in these photographic sessions, when Nelson later escaped from the family, he attempted to replace him, often in the nude.
Oskman suggests that he can see the teenage rebellion growing in the son’s stances and facial gestures as time moves forward—although, time here is a subjective perception, with photographs not clearly expressing precisely when different pictorial compositions were actually filmed. But at one point, soon after Nelson’s photo-sessions actually spill over to the fire-escape, he seems to disappear from his parent’s lives, with only two or three later photographs sent to them and his passport (how the parents obtained his youthful passport is never explained) suggesting his richer life of travel and change.
In the last two photographs, the beautifully lithe Pan whom his parents loved has transformed into a heavyweight man, who has clearly attempted to shed his youthful “radiance.”
The final scenes, portrayed through a video tape taken by clearly unexpected relatives, in which Elmer quickly tours them through his wife’s art projects—all centered on a Christian project that one might imagine to be a kind of apotheosis of the evil he had encountered in the filming of the Polanski movie—ends with Margaret’s rather remarkable sculpture of their two heads, in which their ashes were, they announced, to be placed.
As bad as her somewhat surrealist “Christian-based” art was, it would have been fascinating to see what the art really looked like. It’s not exactly that she had no talent, we perceive, just a lack of vision—which was surely, also, the problem with her husband’s inability—just as was true with John Cassavetes’ character in the original Rosemary’s Baby—to find a role in film and theater. The photographs of her son, moreover, are utterly fascinating. Although we have no idea what theatrical rituals he was attempting to play out, they are riveting. Wouldn’t it be wonderful just to see a show of those works today?
Oskman doesn’t say this, but hints at it the traumatic question: what do you do it you have devoted your life to art and no one cares about it or wants even to see it. Elmer’s one great moment in his acting career was to take his wayward visitors through his wife’s “great contributions” to the world of art.
The story of the Modlin’s, alas, is the story of millions of would-be artists, people of great belief in the imagination, but who simply don’t know how to express it or haven’t the talent to. This film reeks of the bitterness that happens when the loving and caring artists simply cannot face the truth. Particularly, when the society itself has not been able to accept their self-imagined gifts.
Given all the bad art I have seen in my life, I’d have gladly suggested to some popular gallerist to give Margaret a show. And surely, Elmer Modlin deserved, in some grade B movie, to be given a small speaking role. At least Nelson saw the world, whether or not he could enjoy it is a mystery that shall never be answered.
Los Angeles, March 27, 2017