Saturday, February 26, 2022

‘Strawberry Mansion’ reveals the power of dreams

“Strawberry Mansion” (2020 production, 2022 release). Cast: Kentucker Audley, Reed Birney, Penny Fuller, Linas Phillips, Grace Glowicki, Constance Shulman, Ephraim Birney, Albert Birney. Directors: Kentucker Audley and Albert Birney. Screenplay: Kentucker Audley and Albert Birney. Web site. Trailer.

Dreams carry tremendous power. They give us hope, inspiration and motivation to achieve lofty goals, aspirations that have become synonymous with the word “dream” itself. But there’s even more to them that; their power, backed by the beliefs that drive them, can impact our existence in unimaginable ways, enabling possibilities we may have never envisioned. Getting to that realization may take some doing, though, especially when it comes, ironically enough, to “awakening,” an odyssey insightfully depicted in the new sci-fi fantasy, “Strawberry Mansion.”

Have you ever been on an email or social media web site where you’ve found advertising in the margins or newsfeed that, remarkably, just happens to match what you’ve just been thinking or talking about? Some find it uncanny, while others find it creepy and intrusive. But imagine what it might be like if that highly synchronistic concept could be taken a step further, with promotional messages for products that you have an immediate need or desire for miraculously showing up in your dreams. Those perfectly timed recommendations might almost seem heaven-sent, especially among those who don’t fully understand the nature of their dream life. They’re so unaware – yet so grateful – for the suggestions that they rush out to purchase the products in question upon awakening. On top of that, they’re so appreciative for these leads that they’re even willing to pay taxes for them. Amounts are assessed based on the imagery in their dreams, the details of which are faithfully and willingly recorded to provide documentation for tax authorities. Payment is provided upon awakening, a gesture that has unquestioningly become part of their morning routine. And that goes for virtually everybody.

Sounds rather invasive, doesn’t it? What’s most unnerving about all this, though, is that most people don’t realize that the images related to the recommendations are being planted in their dreams without their knowledge. Like sheep, they go along with what’s being sold to them, and they never raise a fuss about the practice nor object to paying the taxes.

When tax auditor James Preble (Kentucker Audley, back to camera) arrives at the remote home of an elderly eccentric, he’s not quite sure what to expect, as seen in the whimsical new sci-fi release, “Strawberry Mansion.” Photo courtesy of Music Box Films.

Such is life in 2035, where technology has been perfected to a point where these practices have been thoroughly implemented and blindly accepted as standard operating procedure. Our dreams truly aren’t our own any more, and we don’t even realize it. That’s true even for the tax collectors, who generally have no idea that they’re being taken just like everybody else. All they’re concerned with is doing their jobs, conducting audits to make sure that everyone is paying his or her “fair” share.

That’s where tax auditor James Preble (Kentucker Audley) enters the picture. He dutifully dreams his dreams, buys the recommended products, pays the requisite taxes and goes about his work making sure that taxing authorities are getting their “just” due. He’s a good little consumer and civil servant who never questions the status quo and makes a practice of enforcing regulations to the letter.

But that all changes when James is tasked with performing an audit of an eccentric old woman, Arabella Isadora (Penny Fuller). It seems she’s delinquent on her taxes, having apparently not paid them in quite some time. James pays a visit to her rural residence, a bright, magenta, Victorian structure that she calls the Strawberry Mansion. Much to his surprise, Bella warmly welcomes him into her home, whose interior is even more eye-popping than the exterior. The aging artist has filled the rooms with all manner of colorful, inventive paintings, sculptures and figurines, looking as if they were images from her dreams brought to life.

All of this leaves James more than a little baffled. However, he’s even more surprised by the warm hospitality Bella extends to him. That’s true despite his explanation for the purpose of his visit. James is mystified that she offers no resistance and cooperates fully, a reaction far different from how most people respond when the taxman comes for a visit. Nevertheless, he gladly welcomes her assistance, especially when he discovers the extent of the material he’ll need to review for his audit. In fact, it quickly becomes apparent that his work is going to require a great deal of time, so much so that Bella extends an invitation to stay at her home for as long as it takes. After all, she doesn’t want to “tax” him with having to repeatedly make the long commute back and forth between his residence and her remote property.

Upon arrival at his audit subject’s home, taxman James Preble (Kentucker Audley, back to camera) soon realizes he has his work cut out for him, a project that will ultimately help to change his life, as depicted in the delightful indie sci-fi release, “Strawberry Mansion.” Photo courtesy of Music Box Films.

As James begins his audit, he discovers Bella has about 2,000 dream tapes for review, a process that will likely take even longer than expected given that they’re in an outdated format. There are frequent distractions, too, such as Bella routinely interrupting him to graciously serve him tea or a meal. He’s also sidetracked by the unusual imagery in Bella’s house and his host’s perpetually genial and unconventional demeanor, particularly the strange, lighted helmet she often sports. He feels as though his professionalism is being compromised, and it makes him uncomfortable. But those diversions are nothing compared to what’s to come.

In watching Bella’s tapes and assessing taxable amounts, he starts to become captivated by the imagery in her dreams. Many of them are truly out there, such as dinner in a restaurant with a tall, talking frog waiter (Albert Birney) and a series of outdoor encounters with a mysterious “grass man” who looks oddly familiar. But what captures James’s attention most is Bella’s younger self (Grace Glowicki), a beautiful woman who also seems uncannily familiar. James can’t help but be taken in by what he sees.

After reviewing a number of tapes, James and Bella partake in a number of profound conversations. He grows curious about her and her past, and this personal interest unwittingly prompts him to let his guard down. He slowly drops his professional demeanor as they talk about subjects unrelated to the audit. In no time, their discussions turn to the subject of dreams, but not just their own nighttime experiences; they also discuss the nature of dreams and what they’re capable of, notions that Bella has a good handle on but about which James is comparatively clueless. She then confesses that it’s important for James to understand this, because it will open his eyes. What’s more, she says that this understanding will help to show him that the two of them are intrinsically connected in many more ways than just the audit, a revelation that captivates him.

The odd habits, artwork and wardrobe of aging eccentric Arabella Isadora (Penny Fuller) confounds a conventional tax auditor in “Strawberry Mansion,” the latest offering from directors Kentucker Audley and Albert Birney. Photo courtesy of Music Box Films.

What follows is an odyssey beyond imagination, including a strange meeting with Bella’s long-estranged son, Peter (Reed Birney). To say more about it, though, would reveal too much, but suffice it to say that the experience is enlightening and challenging in myriad ways. It’s an adventure that has the potential to not only awaken James to possibilities and secrets he hadn’t previously considered, but also to do the same for many in the viewing audience. Fasten your seatbelts, folks.

As viewers and characters alike discover, what starts out as a small, slice of life-type of story gradually balloons into something far bigger, one that touches on the nature of our dreams, the meaning of existence and the management of our personal power. And, given that, the tax collection story line quickly seems pretty trivial by comparison (a notion we might all be wise to take to heart). Indeed, with so much at stake here, we, like the protagonist, would be wise to pay close attention to what’s unfolding.

For what it’s worth, the audit assignment is the hook that gets James’s attention and leads him down a truly enlightening path. He soon discovers that dreams are more than a coerced revenue source, and the further he examines this notion, the more he comes to realize how his beliefs about them play a significant role in his reality, the one he experiences while asleep and the one he experiences while awake. Such is what comes out of the conscious creation process, the philosophy that maintains we draw upon these intangible resources in shaping our existence. As the picture so eloquently illustrates, what can potentially emerge from our dreams (and the beliefs behind them) is quite a step up from the more mundane “revelations” they have typically yielded, such as learning which brand of fried chicken is the crispiest or what pesticide is most effective in eliminating a spider infestation. But, then, that’s probably to be expected when we discover how powerful and valuable these tools can be to our personal happiness and well-being, especially when we can see past the manipulation that goes into using them for mere consumer good pitches.

While reviewing a dream recording for tax purposes, auditor James Preble (Kentucker Audley, left) becomes captivated with the younger self of his audit subject, Arabella Isadora (Grace Glowicki, right), in “Strawberry Mansion.” Photo courtesy of Music Box Films.

Once James learns how to take control of his beliefs, he realizes how much more they have to offer, particularly in the dream state. Even more importantly, though, he sees how he can employ them to bring about what gives him personal fulfillment and satisfaction. The goals and aims that he had allowed himself to become accustomed to in his dreams suddenly pale by comparison. The vistas that open up to him are more meaningful and significant than those that come to him through nightly visits from a dreamtime avatar (Linas Phillips) who tries to sell him on things like which brand of soda to buy.

This realization enables James to grow and evolve in ways he hadn’t anticipated when he began Bella’s audit. He undergoes a fundamental metamorphosis, one in which he begins to realize his potential in ways he hadn’t previously imagined. In fact, like those in many of the world’s indigenous cultures, he comes to understand that the dream state is the real reality – one in which infinite possibilities for exploration and creative expression are attainable – and that the waking consciousness we think of as “reality” is merely a dream. It may be a powerfully seductive one in which we become heavily invested in the veracity of what we experience, but it’s still only one limited possibility, one that comes up far short in comparison to what true existence can afford us. And, as becomes apparent, it all comes down to the underlying beliefs driving it and how fiercely we adhere to them, something that’s not especially difficult to grasp given their inherent power and persistence.

In light of the foregoing, dreams and beliefs thus place infinite possibilities readily within our reach, provided we give ourselves permission to experience them. This means there are genuine modes of expression that allow us to immerse ourselves in unrelenting joy and freedom, a lesson that Bella – in both of her incarnations – is desperate for James to discover for himself. She realizes that there’s much more to what he can attain than what he’s allowed himself to be compelled into believing. Indeed, reality really can be quite the adventure if we’ll only open our eyes and allow it.

During the course of what is supposed to be a routine audit, taxman James Preble (Kentucker Audley, right) has an unusual encounter with Peter Bloom (Reed Birney, left), the long-estranged son of his audit subject, in “Strawberry Mansion.” Photo courtesy of Music Box Films.

Of course, if this is to happen, we must begin practicing discernment to discover what we truly believe and what we’ve allowed ourselves to become blinded by. This involves eliminating such undercutting influences as fears and limitations, for they only get in our way and keep us from achieving true happiness – the kind that the profit-motivated manipulators don’t want us to see or experience. After all, if we go down that path, we may end up buying a different brand of soda – or no soda at all – much to their exasperated consternation. Think about that the next time you read your email page or visit a social media web site. You’re in charge of your beliefs, which means that you’re in charge of your destiny and how your reality unfolds.

Considering the breadth of material addressed here, this is, without a doubt, one of the best new releases I’ve seen in a while. This little-known sci-fi gem from directors Kentucker Audley and Albert Birney serves up a funny, thoughtful meditation on the nature of existence, the intrusiveness of attempted mental manipulation and the perils of unbridled greed, all wrapped up in a delightful, visually sensational package. It’s also one of the most romantic stories I’ve screened in ages, conveying genuine, heartfelt emotion without ever becoming schmaltzy, a rare accomplishment in general and something rarely seen in this genre. The film’s scrupulous attention to detail in the production design, cinematography and writing is absolutely astounding, and its inventive, clever creativity sparkles but without ever becoming excessive or gimmicky. There’s a lot to like in this one, as well as a lot that gives viewers pause for thought. And, aside from a slight tendency to stretch things out a little too long in the final act (most likely due to the filmmakers’ desire to cover as much ground as possible), there’s really not much else to criticize here. “Strawberry Mansion” may not appeal to everyone, but, for those who value cinematic innovation without becoming tedious, annoying or implausible, this one is for you. The film is playing in limited theatrical release and is available for streaming online.

For many of us, dreams are a mystery, but they need not be mystifying. If we make the effort to understand them and then make use of that knowledge, there’s no telling where they can take us. Of course, if we allow ourselves to become hung up on the impediments that keep us from grasping or employing those insights, we may never realize what we’re missing, and that would be unfortunate. After all, a can of bug spray can’t begin to compare with the wonder of existence and everything it can offer us.

Copyright © 2022, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

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