153. CLEAN, SHAVEN (1993)

“With Clean, Shaven, I really tried to examine the subjective reality of someone who suffered from schizophrenia, to try to put the audience in that position to experience how I imagined the symptoms to be: auditory hallucinations, heightened paranoia, disassociative feelings, anxiety. Hopefully the audience would feel at the end of it like how it must be to feel that way for a lifetime and not just eighty minutes…”–Lodge Kerrigan

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Peter Greene, Robert Albert, Jennifer MacDonald

PLOT: Peter has been released from a mental hospital, but he still suffers from near constant auditory hallucinations and paranoid thinking. Insulating himself from the outside world by taping newspaper over his car windows, he drives through New Brunswick, Canada, searching for his lost daughter Nicole, who was adopted after he was institutionalized. As Peter hones in on Nicole’s location, he is simultaneously being hunted by a detective who believes that the schizophrenic is responsible for the murder of a girl about his daughter’s age.

Still from Clean, Shaven (1993)

BACKGROUND:

  • Lodge Kerrigan’s first film, Clean, Shaven took two years to complete filming, as the director was always running out of money. The film was eventually completed for under $70,000. It has grossed far more than that.
  • Kerrigan’s inspiration for the film was a college friend who was afflicted with schizophrenia.
  • In 1994 Clean, Shaven screened at Cannes in the “Un Certain Regard” category alongside movies like Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and ‘s Faust.
  • Although he is very good here in the type of intense and challenging part that usually wins awards, this role did not catapult Peter Greene to stardom. He did, however, land small parts in two of the 1990s greatest hit movies: Pulp Fiction (where he plays Zed, the cop who colludes with the pawnshop owner) and The Usual Suspects (an uncredited bit part).
  • According to reports, Kerrigan turned down early offers that conditioned a distribution deal on his editing out the fingernail scene.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: It’s hard to argue against the infamous “fingernail” scene, the gruesome moment that made festival audiences scream, squirm, hide their eyes, and sometimes stand up and head for the exits. When I think back on Clean, Shaven, however, what I remember are the shots of telephone wires streaming along to the sound of Peter’s buzzy personal soundtrack of distorted voices and static; the images reflect the miswired disorientation of Peter’s brain, mirrored in the scary external world racing by outside his car window.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: This movie traps us inside the mind of a madman. We are assaulted by his auditory hallucinations, and, like him, we can’t be sure whether what we see and experience is real, or a product of a tormented imagination. The schizophrenic sound design is superlative; this may not be the weirdest movie you’ll ever see, but it’s definitely in the running for the weirdest movie you’ll ever hear.


Original trailer for Clean, Shaven

COMMENTS: Lodge Kerrigan makes movies about people you’d cross the street to avoid bumping into: the homeless, prostitutes, the mentally ill. In Clean, Shaven, his unsurpassed debut film, he locks you inside a schizophrenic’s head, forcing you to listen to the thoughts reverberating around a madman’s skull. Intense as hell, with a soundtrack that can induce headaches and bloody visuals that will make you squirm, Clean, Shaven is nevertheless a fundamentally humane movie. Although it plays almost as a B-movie thriller at times, complete with gory scenes of self-mutilation that remind you of exploitation film money shots, the intent is not to disturb, but to make you feel a little bit of what schizophrenic Peter Winter feels by forcing you to spend time with the demons who haunt him daily. The film achieves the difficult task of allowing you to empathize with Peter without romanticizing his illness. Peter is not simply a noble victim, but a certified danger to himself and others; and no matter how much we come to care for him, he remains frightening. We want him to find his lost daughter to ease at least a portion of his sorrow, and yet part of us wants him to fail in his quest, for her sake. We fear for her; Peter is too unpredictable to be trusted.

Working on a minimal budget, Kerrigan brilliantly makes most of his special effects by rendering the movie’s hallucinatory effects almost entirely through audio. Peter’s mind works like a malfunctioning radio. As he drives along the bleak back roads of New Brunswick, he’s assaulted by a constantly morphing aural stream of static, hums, electrical noises, distant screams, and muttering voices which sometimes rise from the background din and speak to him. He hears a police siren as he drives along, but is it really there, or is it just his paranoia? Some of the snippets that play (or replay) either in his mind or on the radio as he drives along involve reports of murderers and court proceedings. Most memorable are the threats of an angry man who proclaims in a threatening baritone, “I don’t like you. When you wake up in the morning do you think ‘am I going to have to kill someone today?’ Is that paranoia? For you it’s paranoia, for me it’s a reality!” Is it Peter’s memory of the words of a prison guard, or a fellow inmate in whatever institution he was locked away in? Or is it a voice emanating from his own subconscious? His conclusion is that someone has surgically embedded transmitters in his body, and he will never have peace nor quiet until he digs them out.

Beside the unnerving audio, Kerrigan makes use of the technique of doubling to add a layer of mystery. In the beginning, we watch as Peter observes himself in his car’s rear-view mirror and side view mirror. He apparently does not like what he sees. He uses newspaper to tape up every reflective surface; when he catches sight of his reflection in the car window, he smashes out the glass and replaces it with tabloid headlines. But reflections appear in places other than mirrors. Peter’s absent daughter, Nicole, is a brunette girl of about eight years old, and dark-haired girls of elementary school age keep popping up everywhere he goes. One peers into his car after hitting the windshield with a soccer ball. Another is walking in a field outside the motel Peter stays at. A murder victim (whose body is mysteriously unscathed) meets the general description. So does the little girl who keeps peering back at him from a milk carton bearing the legend “have you seen me?” Peter tries to blot out his own image, but he can’t stop Nicole’s from haunting him.

Kerrigan introduces an even more important mirror image near the midpoint of the film in the detective who’s looking for the child murderer, and zeroes in on Peter as his primary suspect. Just like his quarry, this hunter is light-haired, blue-eyed, medium build, and wears rumpled clothing, including a tie that, like Peter’s, hangs uncomfortably around his neck. As Peter hunts Nicole, the detective hunts Peter. Both men smoke. The ominous drone that troubles the detective when he observes the murdered girl’s body is a soundtrack 101 mood-setting piece, sure, but it also inevitably recalls Peter’s auditory hallucinations. The obsessive way the cop arranges and handles the physical evidence reminds us of the ritualistic way the schizophrenic lines up his morning coffee cups. Peter cuts himself on purpose; the detective accidentally draws blood by driving a splinter into his hand. And the cop seems to have his own issues with mental stability; we see him pounding his steering wheel in a rage, presumably at his frustration at failing to come up with a solid lead in the case. In an extremely odd and telling development, the officer seduces Nicole’s adoptive mother—mating with Nicole’s surrogate mother, which makes him, by transitive symbolism, the girl’s surrogate father. Peter may block out his own image with newspaper, but he can’t stop the vengeful double who is inexorably closing in on him.

The central ambiguity in Clean, Shaven is whether Peter is a killer of young girls, and therefore whether he is a danger to his own daughter. There are few clues to help us decide one way or the other; there is certainly not enough evidence to convict Peter beyond a reasonable doubt. The girl who disappears in the early scenes may not have existed, for all we know. We hear female screams, but from our vantage point between Peter’s ears, we hear lots of things that aren’t really there. The ambiguity here serves multiple artistic functions. It mirrors the protagonist’s own confusion, his inability to distinguish between what happens inside his head and outside it. Kerrigan also has a social purpose in not providing evidence of Peter’s guilt; he wants us to ask, do we suspect the man of violence solely because he’s mentally ill? Are we ready to convict him simply because every psycho we’ve seen in movies before has turned out to be a serial killer? Besides serving those functions, however, the ambiguity also sets this drama in an irrational, abstract place, a bleak psychoscape where feelings and motivations matter more than actions. What happens out there, in objective reality, is mostly arbitrary; what matters most is what happens inside the characters’ heads.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a close study of an unbalanced mind perhaps unprecedented in its artistic concentration and clinical detail. Character seems so beyond the pale, so incapable of doing anything normally, that it’s hard to believe he could have made it this far and been part of a family. But as the deconstructed facts of his life are pieced back together, a plausible portrait emerges.”–Todd McCarthy, Variety (contemporaneous)

“…an uncompromising experiment in creating, for the viewer, an idea of what schizophrenia is like.”–Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times (contemporaneous)

“…[the] ambiguities make this a difficult film to comprehend in any rational way. On the other hand, it’s the elliptical nature of Clean, Shaven that makes it the compelling work it is.”–Steve Davis, Austin Chronicle (contemporaneous)

OFFICIAL SITE: Clean, Shaven (1994) – The Criterion Collection – Includes a clip from the film and Dennis Lim’s essay

IMDB LINK: Clean, Shaven (1993)

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

Keen, Shaven: FFC Interviews Lodge Kerrigan – This 2005 interview with writer/director Kerrigan mostly addresses the then current release Keane, but touches on Clean, Shaven, even giving a hint for interpreting the movie

DVD INFO: The Criterion Collection acquired the rights to Clean, Shaven, restored the film, and released a deluxe DVD edition (buy) in 2006. Although somewhat light on featurettes, it includes a video essay by writer/film critic Michael Atkinson and the original trailer. An unusual special feature is the film’s soundtrack and selections from the final audio mix, which are included on the disc as downloadable mp3 files. The commentary is in the form of an interview with Kerrigan conducted by (who produced the director’s later film Keane).

The previous edition of Clean, Shaven from Fox Lorber (buy) contained no special features; you may be able to find a used copy cheaper than the Criterion disc if all you want is the movie itself.

Clean, Shaven is also available on video-on-demand (rent or buy digitally).

(This movie was nominated for review by Eric Gabbard, who called it “my favorite weird film about schizophrenia.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

2 thoughts on “153. CLEAN, SHAVEN (1993)”

  1. I remember grabbing this at random at the local Blockbuster (remember them?) and being blown away.

    Sure, everybody remembers the fingernails, but it was the scene of the lead yelling to himself at the library that hit home to me. In contrast to other movies, such as “A Beautiful Mind”, where the big reveal involved a convoluted intelligence scene to reveal the main characters damaged point of view, this loudly quiet scene is the best example of inner versus outer.

    Full disclosure, I work in a public library, and we have multiple patrons who are schizophrenic. Their behavior is often predicated by whether they are on or off their meds.

    Why I really like this movie is because it tries to recreate schizophrenia as it is from the inside, which must be terrifying. Most movies, in trying to recreate insanity, make it fun or at least cinematic. I’m looking at you “12 Monkeys”. (Great movie, by the way.)

    The reality of schizophrenia is no fun whatsoever.

    I could get more into the fluidity of what is and is not “proper” mental health. Kerrigan here touches on that, “sane” is a construct of societal norms, and we are all on a sliding scale. But… eh.

    I do want to mention the soundscape. You spent a large part of your review talking about it, but I’m fascinated by this. One of the reasons I love the movie “Suspiria” is because the soundtrack is so dissonant and unpleasant. I love that, the dissonance. Here’s a link that tries to explore what it must sound like to be schizophrenic: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0vvU-Ajwbok.

    I’m not schizophrenic, but I find this “wall of noise” soothing. I could fall asleep to that. And yes, “Suspiria” is my favorite movie to fall asleep to.

    So is “schizophrenia” a disorder, or is it a part of the varieties of human existence? What does it mean that some people are autistic, deal with Aspergers, or suffer from clinical depression? What’s it like to deal with that from the inside?

    Hmm. Seem to have lost my point here.

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