By Madelyn Ritrosky
Planet Ibsen is not science fiction. Like sci-fi, however, it is an exploration into the realms of what-if and altered realities - to that other planet of surrealist exploration.
Planet Ibsen is an intriguing experiment, engaging at various levels: shot composition, editing, story, and theme.
But it's not about surrealism. At the levels of story and theme and in its formal construction, the film is concerned with self-examination and revelation, gender and power, representation and (non)realism, and historical or "period" stories as prisms for considering our own times.
Planet Ibsen had its world premiere at the Santa Barbara Film Festival this week. Director Jonathan Wyche, in his first feature, wants the viewer to think, to connect images and ideas through association and abstraction rather than through continuity editing and traditional storytelling.
Wyche, who has directed TV commercials, shows for Animal Planet, and three documentaries, said he did not want to "spoon feed" the audience. There is, however, an overarching narrative trajectory - a character's interior journey and realizations - that will satisfy viewers who want some sort of storyline to follow.
Henrik Ibsen wrote what is widely recognized as the first proto-feminist play, A Doll's House (1879), which looks at the male-dominated power dynamics of marriage of that time. Ibsen never actually met August Strindberg, a contemporary and fellow writer, but Strindberg publicly blamed Ibsen and his play for the demise of his personal and professional life.
Planet Ibsen is called by the filmmakers "an extreme adaptation" of A Doll's House. But perhaps it is more accurate to call it a surreal meditation, a jumping off point, a historical context for thinking about the abovementioned issues and for formal experimentation.
It feels like you're diving into something below the surface, through the looking glass, into cogitation on gender and on heterosexual relations and marriage in particular.
Although there are two intimately connected female characters, Siri and Nora (Strindberg's wife and the female lead of A Doll's House, whom he sees as his wife), who grow and challenge their husbands, the primary frame for the film is male in that we are in Strindberg's mind and privy to his imaginative argument with Ibsen.
The film opens with a sort of decoupage montage with voice-over narration, wisely giving the audience some historical background. It is also, wisely, a female voice. The entire movie, however, is symbolic of Strindberg's interior journey of paranoia, denial, and finally realization, and it jumps across time, space, and varying planes of fiction and "reality."
Strindberg is played by Steve DuMouchel (who has acted on TV series such as CSI: Miami and Dawson's Creek). Ibsen is played by Clint Howard (Cinderella Man, The Missing). Newcomer Justine Eyre portrays both Siri and Nora. And Gabriel Damon(Newsies, Robocop 2) is a young Strindberg.
Wyche said that he hit upon the idea for his story through at least three different interests: his longstanding fascination with the Victorian era, his admiration for surrealist artist Salvador Dali, and his concern about women and representation in film. He and his wife and producer of the film, Erica Arnold-Wyche, point out that as an African American director, Wyche "challenges mainstream expectations of black directors."
Howard and Damon co-produced Plant Ibsen. Howard said he was impressed by Wyche's "thinking outside the box and not in a showbizzy way," and he found the Strindberg character intriguing.
He liked the idea of playing "Ibsen the Troll" and, amazingly, boarded a plane with wild hairpiece intact without comment from anyone. Damon likes that the film tells the story of this character in a nontraditional way, as well as the irony of Strindberg unintentionally helping broaden social roles for women through his narrow-minded harangues.
The film got its primary funding through an award Wyche won for his screenplay in 2003 from the Independent Film Project/Miami Sunlight Production Fund. They also received donations of goods and services from the Florida filmmaking community. It was a challenging shoot, done in an abandoned Air Force base in 27 days. As Arnold-Wyche said, their budget was "well well well under a million." They put their very limited resources to good use with Planet Ibsen.
More articles by Madelyn Ritrosky
Photos courtesy of Planet Ibsen, LLC