352. SEVEN SERVANTS (1996)

“Whether you take the doughnut hole as a blank space or as an entity unto itself is a purely metaphysical question and does not affect the taste of the doughnut one bit.”–Haruki Murakami

DIRECTED BY: Daryush Shokof, Stefan Jonas

FEATURING: , Sonja Kirchberger

PLOT: Wealthy, elderly Archie is visited in his villa by a mysterious woman who sings an aria to him. Realizing that his death is near, he places an ad requesting young male servants. When the first of these arrives, he tells him he will earn ten thousand dollars if he inserts a finger in his ear and leave it there for ten days; he then hires three other men to plug up his other ear and each of his nostrils.

Still from Seven Servants (1996)

BACKGROUND:

  • Born in Iran but living in the U.S. and Europe, Daryush Shokof is a painter and experimental video artist. He co-wrote Seven Servants‘ script with his wife from a dream he had. This was his first feature film.
  • Shokof considered cinematographer Stephan Jonas’ contribution so important that the opening credits announce it is a film by “Daryush Shokof & Stefan Jonas.”
  • Anthony Quinn said that the finished project was ahead of its time, “a work for the 21st century,” and that release should be delayed. Although it played at two film festivals in 1996, Quinn, who was also an executive producer, decided to delay release after a timid reception. Soon after, the production company went bankrupt, so Seven Servants wasn’t screened again until 2009, and received a DVD release from Pathfinder Entertainment in the same year. Quinn died in 2001, which is why the film’s dedication speaks of him in the past tense.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Nothing less than cinema icon Anthony Quinn surrounded by four shirtless young men of different ethnicities, each with a finger stuck in his ear or nostril, with the whole assembly undulating like a dancing octopus as fruit floats over their heads.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Death sings an aria; Quinn’s plugged orifices; floating fruit

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: One of my favorite species of weird movies is the experiment in taking an absurd premise to its logical conclusion. Seven Servants starts in earnest when a man sticks his finger in Anthony Quinn’s ear and doesn’t let up until every last one of his apertures is closed. It’s end-of-life porn, a smooth jazz fantasy of death as an epicurean celebration of life.


Original trailer for Seven Servants

COMMENTS: So, what do you do if you’re an obscure Iranian expatriate artist and you have a dream about a dying man who hires young men to plug up all his orifices in a final deathbed experiment in human connectedness? Obviously, you get on the phone to screen legend Anthony Quinn and pitch him the chance to fund and star in the film adaptation of last night’s dream. The canon of surreal cinema is filled with weirder films, and filled with better films, but there are few films whose very existence is as improbable as Seven Servants. The concept is so rare and strange that, even with Quinn’s eager backing, it’s no surprise that the final result divided festival audiences, struck out with distributors, and remained on the shelf for years. Quinn himself called it “one of the most unusual movies I’ve ever made,” and that statement was, it turns out, selling Seven Servants short—it is certainly the most unusual movie the veteran of almost 300 films ever made.

There’s little doubt that without Quinn’s participation this oddity never would have gotten off the ground, or if it had, it would not have received even the cursory notice it did. To mainstream film fans, Seven Servants is nothing more than one of Anthony Quinn’s very last lead roles, glimpsed as an entry in his IMDB filmography. The synopsis is hardly to be believed: just the juxtaposition of the words “Anthony Quinn” and “orifices” is enough to send eyebrows flying towards the ceiling. Yet, watching the film, there is every sign that Quinn is all-in on the project. He’s not drawing a paycheck; he’s spending his children’s inheritance. Obviously, the idea of making a final film statement in the role of a dying man appealed to the 80-year-old veteran of David Lean and movies. He delivers his rather pompous monologues (“who can be ready for the end? What, indeed, is the readiness?”) in an authoritative baritone. You wouldn’t think it was possible to convey dignity with another man’s finger stuck up your nose, but Quinn manages it. The scenario where he invites his very first servant interview to lubricate his finger with Scotch before inserting it into his body is implicitly homoerotic, but played with a disarming fidelity to the insane premise that subverts any sexuality.

The fact that we watch this frail man enjoy his final days—eating, bathing, and painting in the company of dear strangers—rather than suffering the debilitating pangs of cancer, or whatever ailment is about to strike him down, is crucial to whatever success the experiment attains. Death here is, almost literally, a friend, or at least a congenial acquaintance (she does get an invitation to Archie’s farewell feast). and  show up in support as old friends, and Broadway singer Audra McDonald, making her feature film debut, impresses in a (mostly) non-speaking role. The rest of the actors, especially the four male servants, are virtual amateurs, with a naïve, gee-golly acceptance of the strangeness of their assignment. (Imagine how you would feel as a young actor just starting out if the first major role your landed required you to stick your finger up one of your hero’s nostrils!) They only serve to make Quinn stand out from his bland surroundings. He is likable, grandfatherly, inherently wise, and his presence and performance makes the film’s joie de vivre-on-the-deathbed message play as more touching than hokey.

The obsessively precise progression of the conceit—first plug up one ear, then the other, then one nostril, then the other, employing first a Caucasian, then an African, then an Asian, and ending with an Indian—remind me of the odd artistic compulsions of a . The mise-en-scène is also reminiscent of that eccentric Englishman, on a less lavish and detailed scale. Although the sight of Quinn, attached to four young men by their fingers, gracefully dancing through his country estate gardens is enchanting, director Shokof and cinematographer Stefan Jonas don’t stop there. They set the slim action amidst some almost throwaway art pieces, and shoot it in golden hues, as if everything is taking place in late afternoon, just an hour before sundown. Llamas, horses and camels roam the grounds. A parrot perches on a white horse’s back. Archie and Paul, the first servant, take tea with their feet dangling in the water in a service set up on the bank of an overflowing river, with watermelons floating in the muddy stream, and one conspicuously balanced on a stone gate. A rooster stands on a melon in the foreground with the human octopus in the background, then disappears. Most remarkable of all are the pineapples and strawberries that occasionally appear over the main characters’ heads, floating and spinning in space. I suppose they symbolize the merger of the sensual with the magical that is the basis of Archie’s experiment, but they will strike most viewers as arbitrary and just flat-out weird. Gato Barbieri’s smooth saxophone floats through the tranquil spaces between scenes, as sensuous and unthreatening as death itself.

Not too much happens in Seven Servants. It’s not a narrative so much as it is a conceptual art project loosely wrapped around a narrative. It’s more ceremonial than dramatic. The idea of being in complete control of one’s final days, to summarize one’s life as a work of performance art, is undeniably appealing. It was enough to keep me watching despite the lack of much real conflict in the script. The story lays out its architecture early on and simply proceeds to add those elements one by one. There are not a lot of surprises, although you may wonder who he will pick for the last three servants. If you’re looking for a plot hook, perhaps you can pay attention to the opening, in which we see a different man in a hospital bed, hooked up to a heart monitor and an IV, with a halved watermelon lying on the hospital room floor, while Quinn narrates. This introduction is quickly forgotten once the main story kicks in, but it does present a minor conundrum as to the narrator’s identity.

Seven Servants gets a bit goofy—maybe even mushy—in its ill-defined, New Age-y hokum. Archie’s advertisement (“intriguing, yes, but certainly bizarre”) reads, “positions available for young men of substance who dare to part with their limitations. If your soul and your mind are free to journey, your senses alive, and your hand ready, connections can be established…” The experiment implies Archie will expand his horizons by being “wired in” to others with different perspectives. At one point, he even breaths through the human circuitry while he’s underwater. The servants benefit, too, connecting to both Archie and each other in a sort of metaphysical network. The interconnectedness of us all, we are wiser together than apart, get it? Archie even arranges a United Nations of servants to attend to him; affirmative action for mystics. It has all the intellectual force of a celebrity’s call for world peace and understanding. But this flaccid, lowest-common-denominator spirituality—explicitly not connected to any particular belief system (several times characters stress they are not religious)—just adds to the film’s charm. In old age, Archie has a second childhood, returning to wonder and spiritual simplicity. There is a naïvety in the film’s absurdity, and its earnest belief in itself ultimately won me over. You can see it as a pretentious pseudo-philosophy, or as a genuine wisdom, or as puredee absurdism, as a triumph or a blunder; but however you judge Seven Servants, it’s not at all like anything else out there. You can see what attracted Anthony Quinn to such a singular swan song; if it wasn’t quite the ringing final statement he hoped for, perhaps it became more precious as a barely heard whisper. It hovers somewhere between the trite and the transcendent.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“If it didn’t lapse midway into mind-numbing monotony, ‘Seven Servants’ might have made its mark as a camp classic of high-art folly.”–David Rooney, Variety (contemporaneous)

“…a one-of-a-kind odd movie that is intriguing throughout, except that it constantly threatens to spill over into sheer artsy and new-age ridiculous nonsense, and the ending, unfortunately, pushes it over the edge.”–Zev Toledano, The Worldwide Celluloid Massacre

IMDB LINK: Seven Servants (1996)

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

My memory of Maestro Anthony Quinn (Part One)Seven Servants producer Bahman Maghsoudlou’s recounts his relationship with Anthony Quinn (he promised more stories from the set of Servants in Part Two of the article, which has yet to be published as of 10/2/2018)

Seven Servants – This informational entry at the International Film and Video Center contains excerpts from the director’s statement

Quinn’s Final Film To Debut After 13 Years – Report on the film’s 2009 revival/rediscovery

“Digital Manipulation” Takes on Strange Meaning in Seven Servants – Free preview of an article on the film from American Cinematographer (Questia subscription required to read complete story)

QUINN EMBRACES TENTACLED ROLE IN `SEVEN SERVANTS’ – Preview of an article from The Los Angeles Times (again, a subscription is required to read the entire article)

HOME VIDEO INFO: It’s a miracle that Seven Servants is available on video at all, so we shouldn’t be too picky about editions. Budget specialist Pathfinder Entertainment managed to get their hands on the rights and issued a DVD in 2009 (buy). The image quality is a little soft, but compared to what we see in the trailers, it’s quite an improvement. Gato Barbieri’s score sounds just fine. There are no extras aside from two versions of the trailer and trailers for other Pathfinder releases, including sexy movies like Preaching to the Perverted and Boob Tube that don’t feel all that comfortable on the shelf next to this relatively chaste arthouse film. The DVD is out of print—Pathfinder tends to print one run only—but used copies are not currently expensive. Seven Servants is not on Blu-ray or available for rental on-demand.

 

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