Through a Dark, Glossily

JAMES P. DEGNAN has taught at various American universities in recent years and is at present on the staff of the University of Jacksonville. This is his first appearance in the ATLANTIC.

Virgin Mermaids, the tender story of a schizophrenic mountain climber, is one of Unferth Mygboor’s best film creations. Solider than Wild Groat Stems — generally regarded as Mygboor’s most subtle film — Virgin Mermaids is nevertheless not without subtlety. For example, the film’s hero, Lavanstatter, a ten-year-old Welsh lad who lives on a lemming farm atop a mountain in Africa, never actually appears in the film. His name, in fact, is mentioned only once and then softly by an old lady of 115 who has climbed into a trunk in an attic in Brussels to write a letter to her son who has been dead seventy years. In the same attic there is a fountain pen which the old lady conspicuously doesn’t use and a tintype of a late-nineteenth-century family at a picnic. As she climbs into the trunk, penless, she mumbles “Lavanstatter” (perceptive viewers will recognize the term as an Old Norse obscenity), and the tintype turns into an accordion. Of Virgin Mermaids Mygboor says: “This film is to me what ‘Ash Wednesday’ must be for T. S. Eliot.”

And, indeed, Mermaids does have Eliotic touches. Four people — a novelist turned neurosurgeon (Ernst von Shadow), his eleven-year-old son (Claus von Innsbruck), his married daughter (Harriet Magnavox), and her fourth husband, a neurosurgeon turned novelist (Rip Torn) — all hum different tunes as they drive in a Volkswagen across an ash pit in Greenland on their way to a birthday party in an insane asylum.

Mermaids seems to be the daughter’s story, although it could be the husband’s or the son’s or perhaps the father’s. Be that as it may, the daughter seems most sympathetically to reflect the authentic Mygboor universe. Having recently undergone electroshock therapy for the twenty-third time, she has been restored to reality and faces the difficult facts of life: a devoted husband whom she hates, a devoted father whom she hates, a devoted brother whom she hates. Bouncing along in the Volkswagen and stroking a large blue fiddler crab which she holds in her lap, the daughter thinks of her dead mother, whose memory she hates.

When the Volkswagen pulls into a filling station, where the attendant delivers an anti-Catholic monologue and invites the characters to a wake, the daughter begins to hear voices. She also sees a snake, some spiders, a toad, and four mushrooms. The voices tell her that if she wants to love humanity, the only logical thing for her to do is to seduce her elevenyear-old brother. So, explaining to the husband and father, who are drinking cold grape pop (coldness and grapes are recurrent images in Mygboor films), that she and the brother are going to look for a picnic site, she takes the brother down the street to a Swiss motel, where, in a moment of pure Mygboorian irony, she is raped by the brother.

After the rape the brother runs screaming and laughing out into a thunderstorm and the daughter returns to the filling station only to be told by the attendant that her husband and father have gone looking for her. While the daughter waits for them to return, she is raped by the attendant. During this rape a robin flies against the Volkswagen windshield and breaks its neck. Shortly after, the brother, husband, and father return. For a while they all sit around the station and talk about Being; then they bid farewell to the attendant and resume their trip.

With the exception of the voices, which get so loud that the characters’ speeches become inaudible, and a short stop which permits the characters to peek into a coffin that appears beside the road and contains a corpse that nobody recognizes, the rest of the trip is uneventful. The eleven-year-old, who drives the car, has a strange look on his face; the father examines a shrunken head; the husband chuckles over a copy of Punch; and the daughter sits with her hand cupped against one ear.

By the time they get to the asylum, the daughter is in black despair, but the voices have promised her that she will see God. As the husband opens the asylum door to the tune of “Happy Birthday”—whose birthday it is, Mygboor very subtly conceals— she does see God. He is a large blue fiddler crab sitting in the middle of a table and covered with birthday candles. The daughter makes such a scene that they carry her off to a padded cell; it is bitterly ironical that it is the same one her mother occupied ten years before.

The husband looks at the father, the father at the son, the son at the husband; they appear baffled, but the horror of it all destroys the barrier of coldness and selfishness that has separated them, and in a moment, charged with simple sincerity, they all shake hands. Out of the depths of their beings they all exclaim, “We’ve never shaken hands before!”

In Mermaids, Mygboor has again demonstrated his unparalleled genius as a film maker. He has combined economy of statement — the film lasts only nine minutes and twentythree seconds — with profundity of meaning. What could have more meaning, more vital significance to our age than Mygboor’s brilliant metaphysical symbol, God as a blue fiddler crab covered with birthday candles?

When one asks himself the question, “What is it about a Mygboor symbol that modern audiences respond to so enthusiastically?”, one can only answer, “Many things.”

There is, of course, the Trismegistian influence as well as the Paracelsian; there is Helvetius and Bosch, and not a little of Teufelsdröckh and Milton Caniff. But there is something more, something closer to the heart of existence, something learned, yes, but something simple and intuitive, something that only the very great artists know, and that something is — paradox. Unferth Mygboor, perhaps more than any other living cinema artist, realizes this great truth: every equal has an opposite; every yang a ying; all salt, pepper. Perhaps nowhere else has Mygboor more beautifully and perfectly summed up the essence of his film art than in his recent interview with Pete Martin. During the four hours that Mr. Martin was with Mygboor, Mygboor said but one thing: “Remember,” he said, “a column is nothing but a hole inverted.”