Nathan Silver’s Stinking Heaven screens this weekend at Facets Cinémathèque. For ticketing information, click here.
Late into Nathan Silver’s Stinking Heaven, a character makes a snide remark regarding his desire to surround himself with people, women, who seek pleasure. It gives him pleasure to be around the pleasure-seeking. Set in a sober-living commune in the 90s, the characters that populate Stinking Heaven make no outright mention of depression or anhedonia, but they don’t have to: the litany of their suffering hangs over every character’s head, drifting over them in a noxious miasma that threatens to consume them all.
So it’s of considerable good humor that Stinking Heaven opens with a wedding scene. Kevin (Henri Douvry), the elderly patriarch of the commune, weds the younger Betty (Eleonore Hendricks) in a makeshift ceremony with other members of the collective in attendance. The scenes that follow tinge this bizarre relationship in a different shade of weird as Silver examines the other members of the community, with various residents engaging in activities such as backyard boxing, fucking each other in the backseat of the house van, or peddling bathtub Kombucha tea in parking lots. Before the audience is privy to the addictions that each resident endures, there’s a distinct cultish vibe that’s cultivated in the film, whereby the members of the commune seem to be substituting one addiction for another.
It’s a dangerous situation that these fragile people put themselves in, where their freedom of choice is compromised when its members do not learn how to choose. The road to wellness is complicated further when Betty’s ex, Ann (Hannah Gross), decides to join the commune. The finer details of their breakup aren’t expounded upon but her arrival sparks hostility within the household, eventually prompting Betty’s departure early into the film. The void of her absence is immediately felt, as the unstable social dynamic of the residence succumbs to all-out chaos.
Shot on Betamax videocassettes, Stinking Heaven’s toxic milieu is realized with grainy, grimy depth. The aesthetic choice is smart one, promoting the idea of a home movie and instilling an immediate sense of authenticity to the work. And coupled with Paul Grimstad’s eerie score (he also scored the Ben and Joshua Safdie’s Heaven Knows What), the whole enterprise plays out like a horror film; a missing narrative in death-in-life addictions omitted from David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest.
The discomfort aroused from the film is palpable and not for the faint of heart – even those with the most spiritually sanguine constitutions will find themselves leveled by what feels like witnessing people biodegrade right before their eyes. It produces a kind of empathetic panic. Not many films can produce this feeling, and while it’s not the kind of picture that one often finds themselves hankering for, it’s an achievement nevertheless. Silver is a filmmaker of growing prominence and like some of his budding contemporaries – most notably Rick Alverson – he relishes in his capacity to subvert your expectations into immediate and sustained discomfort. He’s onto something.