Stephen King suggests that Hell is repetition in his short story, “That Feeling, You Can Only Say What It Is in French”. The story is about a woman who is forced to repeat the first hours of her and her husband’s doomed second honeymoon over and over. I have often considered Hell to be exactly that myself—the monotony of the same thing happening again and again, made worse by the fact that you know the doomed outcome in advance. Sisyphus and the Rose—the new independent film by Matt Goodlett and Jimmy Humphrey—makes me think of that Stephen King story and exactly what Hell could very well be.
I was recently invited to a screening of Sisyphus and the Rose in my own hometown of Louisville, Kentucky. In attendance were the writer, the director and editor, along with the actors and production crew. I admit that I went to the movie knowing nothing about it (not even the general plot), with no expectations. I planned to have at least an evening with friends, and to meet a few more, no matter how the movie turned out. I left not only with more than expected from the film, but also another movie well worth featuring here on Space Jockey Reviews. I was pleasantly surprised with a movie that transcends its budget to be something much larger.
Sisyphus and the Rose begins with the main character, Parker (Matt Goodlett), in his bathroom brushing his teeth. From his face, we see he’s disturbed and unsettled about something, as the camera closes in on a ring on a chain around his neck. “My face is a road map of who I am and what I’ve become,” we hear with Parker’s voice-over narration. Who he is, what he’s become, and maybe, more importantly, who he was are questions explored in Sisyphus and the Rose. The answers, although not given to us directly, are certainly worth thinking about and trying to find.
Parker is a common man, ordinary and forgettable, yet unique and outstanding in his banality. He is a man obsessed with the memory of a loved one lost—to what we don’t yet know, if we ever do. He misses her to the point of being next to dysfunctional and nearly detached from society. He has no interest in dating, despite his opportunities, and compares all women to the woman he loved most—Samantha.
“Without her in my life tomorrow, all I have are yesterdays.” ~ Parker
The foreboding soundtrack by Dennis Stein reminds us that the story is a nightmare of sorts throughout, even when joy should be felt—even when the moment without music would make us feel happy and hopeful. The low, ominous tone of the score makes us feel that something bad has already happened, as much as it leads us to think the same about the future; even memories that should be pleasant are disturbing. I’m thinking of the scene in the park where Parker has just proposed to Samantha. Stein’s music captures the ominous tone of the story and hangs on, even when it could be lost, saying “Not so fast!” as we want to rejoice. The wrong music would lead us the wrong way, but Stein’s score keeps us on track, maintaining the mood, making us participate by being, like Parker, uncomfortable.
Matt Goolett, the writer, also plays the part of Parker—the melancholy man unwilling to face his future. Goodlett gives Parker just the right tone of behavior—a detachment from reality, with despair and hopelessness projected from his eyes, as well as the looks on his face. Goodlett’s performance is the key that tightly locks the necessary elements into place. He portrays Parker, with perfection, as a pensive personality—one of tormenting thoughts—overwrought, and complicated, but shallow in his view of the world. Goodlett makes Parker someone we can identify with in some way, while we seek to distance ourselves from his type altogether; he makes Parker a man who once was normal but is no longer. All of this that Goodlett does so well is what Sisyphus and the Rose could not have done without. Kudos to Goodlett for delivering just the right main character in his own movie!
Casandre Elyse Medel is an actress I have not seen before, but she is one I expect to see many times more soon enough. She has a gift for acting, and her performance in Sisyphus and the Rose was a true joy to watch. Medel is as natural in her performance as the girl next door type she portrays. As Lily and Samantha, Medel adds total believability to the story. She never seems to be acting; instead, she is always Lilly or Samantha, as we imagine they should be, even though we never knew them. Medel is captivating in every scene she’s in, because she plays her part with a passion that represents life. Lilly is the beautiful, hopeful element of the story, contrasting with the ugliness of despair; Medel captures this beauty perfectly, offering just the relief necessary in a movie that could otherwise be overwhelming in its oppressiveness. Medel, her characters, and the life she breathes into them, are exactly what’s needed in the story; with lesser talent, Sisyphus and the Rose would have, like its namesake, been unable to reach the top of the hill.
“It’s more like the absurdity of life, or living life no matter how absurd it is and making the best of it, just being happy—the paradox of the absurdity of life.” ~ Lilly
Although beauty is not required for an actress to be effective, Medel’s exceptional beauty adds another essential element that makes Sisyphus and the Rose exactly what it needs to be. Lilly’s striking beauty is part of what makes the mental torture experienced by Parker seem all the greater and more effective for the story. Each time Parker turns Lilly down or avoids her advances, there is a certain frustration felt. As a viewer, we wonder why and think all the more to find reasons. It doesn’t seem right, and it doesn’t make sense, but it happens anyway. This has the added effect of creating greater depth to Parker’s character, as we consider the growing intricacies of who he is. Is Parker really the calm, harmless albeit confused man he appears to be? Or, is he perhaps someone more sinister—someone with a much darker past? Is he turning Lilly down because of guilt, fear, or because he has no choice? Is Lilly herself a punishment—a desire that must be forever refused?
There is a definite comparative symbolism in the name Lilly (as a funeral flower) and the rose in Lilly’s hair and the movie’s title. Lilly wearing a rose, in my interpretation, symbolizes life as well as death, complicated by love. She represents the duality of themes, as well as the repetitive omen that she arguably and ironically is. Several times, Lilly readjusts the rose in her hair, as if to repeatedly tempt Parker, metaphorically, with a new beginning. However, she is one so dearly loved that she cannot be loved again; the thought of a repetitive torture, knowing the end, may be too great for Parker to bear. Again, I think of more questions. Is a beginning with a promise worth taking, only to be damned to know the end? Is Lilly a ghost? Is she really as she appears to Parker? Or, to the contrary, is Parker somehow happy, regardless of how he seems, regardless of what affects him? Is he, like Lilly describes Sisyphus, possibly happy, giving it “tons of meaning.” Yes, these are yet more questions we are left to think about—questions we are left with, long after the movie is over.
One of the many things I so like about Sisyphus and the Rose is that it’s a metaphor for life in general—the pains and joys, and how they are so entangled and complicated, sometimes cancelling out one another in the process of happening. In other words, are the joys of life worth experiencing with the pains they necessarily involve? Is love worth having when it must end with death for sure, breakups too often, divorce possibly…or perhaps even murder? Yes, even murder here is a possibility that cannot be ruled out as much as it can also not be proven.
Of course, a review of Sisyphus and the Rose could not be complete without mentioning the significance of the reference to Sisyphus—the avaricious and deceitful king from Greek mythology. Yes, King Sisyphus was not exactly the most likeable of people. According to Greek mythology, he killed travelers and guests, in violation of the rules of Zeus himself. Sisyphus is said to have not only killed people, but also to have enjoyed it. It is said that he did this in order to maintain power through the force of fear. For his crimes, Sisyphus was sentenced to an eternity of pushing a boulder up a hill, only to have it roll back down, just as it would have reached the top. Or, as Lilly says, “He was doomed to a life of meaningless labor.” Yes, this metaphor is an integral part of Sisyphus and the Rose, suggesting ever-important possibilities for meaning. Is Sam, like Sisyphus, being punished for something terrible he has done—yes, perhaps even for killing Samantha? Is this punishment imagined and born of guilt, or is it perhaps visiting him in the form of Lilly, an avenging spirit herself? Or, is Parker perhaps avoiding his Sisyphus-themed punishment by resisting the temptation to begin anew with Lilly? (If that is the case, it is interesting how it demonstrates an ironic inability to escape yet the repetition of a painful opportunity—effectively still leaving no escape.) These are questions that cannot be answered with certainty, but the possibilities are part of what makes Sisyphus and the Rose all more intriguing as a movie. After all, the experiences and answers are, I believe, as subjective for Parker as they are for the viewer.
Sisyphus and the Rose was written by Matt Goodlett. I had not met Matt before seeing the movie, but I did talk to him about the movie afterwards. As for the multiple interpretations, Matt said, “Whatever you take away from it is correct. I wanted to leave it open to interpretation. Did her ailment do her in, did he kill her, or did she just leave him and he is that crazy? I never wanted that to be clearly defined. Any way you slice it though, it kind of falls into that horror sub category. I love Edgar Allan Poe, and I guess I wanted it to kind of have that feel.”
I also love Edgar Allan Poe, and I must say that I did get a distinct Poe feel with Sisyphus and the Rose. Parker is a man haunted by the death of a lover, and tormented by fears and realities, existing possibly only in his mind. This, along with the resulting mood of despair and hopelessness produced exactly the type of Poe feel Goodlett aspired to create. “Quoth the raven, `Nevermore.’”
Sisyphus and the Rose was directed and edited by Jimmy Humphrey. (Humphrey also stars in the movie as Parker’s friend at the bar—the one who sets him up with Lilly.) I had met Humphrey prior to seeing this film, but was unfamiliar with his work. However, I must say that I was blown away by his directing talents, after seeing Sisyphus and the Rose. A variety of camera angles, all setting the perfect mood for the movie, along with flawless editing and lighting is what made the film what it could not have been without a person of his talent—a success! I must stress the effect of the lighting in this movie that gives it the perfect somber, melancholy feel. It takes a director like Humphrey to make a movie like this work, and he certainly did it. Again, I expect that we’ll be seeing lots more of Humphrey’s work soon enough, as his talent will, no doubt, make it happen. I certainly plan to feature more of his work on Space Jockey Reviews!
In the end, after considering the movie, the metaphors, the symbolism, and all other elements, I will at least try to boil it down to interpretation that fits in a nutshell. To me, Parker is the obvious Sisyphus and Lilly with her rose is Parker’s boulder. Although he can resist new beginnings, he cannot stop the opportunities, the frustration, and all the miserable consequences tantamount to pushing his burden up a hill, only to fall back down again. Such are the best laid plans of mice, Parker, and Sisyphus.
By now, (or long before) you may have wondered how I can ask so many questions, provide so few answers, and properly review a movie. The answer is easy, if you haven’t figured it out already, or if I haven’t in some way said it earlier. Sisyphus and the Rose is a movie that is about making you think, making you ask the questions, and find answers for yourself. It’s a thinking man’s (and woman’s) movie that puts your mind in overdrive and never lets up. It doesn’t tell you the answers, but does give you the clues to decide for yourself. Watch the movie in its entirety below, but don’t expect to be done with it when it’s over. As the credits roll, it’s only the beginning…again.
Starring Matt Goodlett, Casandre Elyse Medel, Jimmy Humphrey, and Luna in Exile, Extras Theresa Plappert, Ethan Fleming, Groucho P. Trout, Jess McMillan, Kelli Baumgarten Written by Matt Goodlett, Directed by Jimmy Humphrey, Edited by Jimmy Humphrey, Additional Crew Brandon Ingram and Conrad Newman, Original Score by Dennis Stein, “Bad Design” performed by Today the Moon, Tomorrow, the Sun, Produced by Birds of a Feather Films In Association with ieatpoop films