The films of Dan Sallitt

Intimate domestic dramas about incest, nymphomaniacs, and really bad honeymoons.

Tallie Medel as Jackie Kimball and Sky Hirschkron as Matthew Kimball in The Unspeakable Act.

Tallie Medel and Sky Hirschkron in Dan Sallitt’s The Unspeakable Act.

Courtesy Static Prods./The Cinema Guild

The indie director Dan Sallitt is a filmmaker who’s slowly crept into my consciousness over the course of the past year. When his new film, The Unspeakable Act, opened last spring, I heard festival-going colleagues saying good things about it, but—as often happens with micro-budget self-financed indies without distribution—it spent such a brief time on so few screens that I wasn’t able to catch it before it disappeared. Months later, the college-age son of a friend, the kind of hungry young film scholar it’s good to have nipping at one’s heels, kindly lent me DVD copies of a few of Sallitt’s earlier films, which perched on the want-to-watch pile for more months while I dealt with the must-watch-imminently pile.

Then, in the course of reading about the complete Howard Hawks retrospective that’s currently (and majestically) unfurling at the Museum of the Moving Image, I came across Sallitt’s film blog, Thanks for the Use of the Hall, where he’s been archiving his thoughts about movies old and new since the mid-2000s. Sallitt’s writing on Hawks, a director he idolizes, was passionate, perceptive, and witty, some of the best criticism I’d read in a long time. (Before he took his current job in the computer industry in New York, Sallitt worked for a time as the chief film critic for the L.A. Reader.) Curious about how a guy who analyzed cinema so well would go about creating it, I headed for the want-to-watch pile, fished out the Sallitt movies, and programmed a little completist retrospective of my own.

It took only a weekend, since over the course of a 27-year career Sallitt has made four films: Polly Perverse Strikes Again! (1986), Honeymoon (1998), All the Ships at Sea (2004) and The Unspeakable Act (2012). (Three of the four films are available for sale or streaming online; I’ve linked the titles to the places you can find them.) They’re all quite different from one another, and even more different from anything else out there. Once you get used to the sometimes wonky production values—Polly Perverse is shot on flat-looking video, with an occasionally visible mic boom, and each subsequent film has gotten progressively sleeker-looking while retaining a certain DIY roughness—Sallitt’s films start to cohere into a fascinating work in progress. They’re all, in one way or another, intimate, small-scale domestic dramas—although “drama” as a genre category seems somehow too stiff and formal for Sallitt, a slippery trickster who is often wickedly funny and who clearly enjoys messing with his audience’s expectations and their heads. All four films are highly verbal (“talky,” in the unnecessarily derogatory term), with densely written dialogue in which every line matters. And all four have moments of uncanny insight into the behavior of people in closely enmeshed, ambivalent relationships, whether it’s parents and children, siblings, or lovers.

Sallitt has a particular interest in sibling relationships, which makes it logical that his most recent film, The Unspeakable Act, is about brother/sister incest. Or rather, the unfulfilled longing for it: Jackie (Tallie Medel), the teenage heroine, has been in love with her brother Matthew (Sky Hirschkron) for as long as she can remember. After Matthew, on the verge of moving away for college, brings home his first real girlfriend, the distraught Jackie goes into free-fall and increases the pressure on her brother to act on their inchoate incestuous lust. Matthew resists, but not with the degree of recoil one would expect from a brother propositioned by his sister—though he’s infuriatingly withholding, he seems to tacitly agree that the two of them are in love, differing only on what they should do about it.

This subject matter seems impossible to treat in a way that’s neither melodramatic nor lurid, but Sallitt’s script—aided by Medel’s superb performance as the outwardly deadpan, inwardly suffering Jackie—hits its own wry, peculiar tone. Jackie’s forbidden desire for her brother becomes a figure for desire itself: We’re not cheering for her to seduce him by any means, but we come to identify with her Quixote-like commitment to that ickily impossible dream. All the while Sallitt holds the viewer ever so slightly at arm’s length, with long, stationary takes, few if any close-ups, and elegant formal compositions. In an interview about criticism and filmmaking, Sallitt has said, “I think there’s something really valuable about not being completely immersed in the movie, about trying to figure out what the movie is doing.” The Unspeakable Act skillfully suspends the viewer in that liminal space between immersion and observation, identification and judgment. I’m not completely sure what to make of it yet, but I admire it for keeping me guessing.

Sallitt’s second-to-last film, All the Ships at Sea, is my favorite among the four he’s made, and probably the one I’d send newbies to as an intro to his work (it’s currently available on Amazon streaming, and runs just over an hour, though it packs enough into that hour to feel like a feature). Another sibling drama, All the Ships accompanies two semi-estranged middle-aged sisters on a brief trip to their family’s old summer house. The older, Evelyn (Strawn Bovee), is a professor of theology and a devout Catholic. The younger, Virginia (Edith Meeks), has just been ejected from the cult where she’s been living for several years. After Virginia shows up, depressed and broke, at the doorstep of their cold, unloving parents, Evelyn drives her to the long-abandoned summer cottage, where they spend a few days undergoing a kind of spiritual crisis à deux, slowly opening up about their shared miserable childhood and their very different relationships to their deeply held faiths. (In a framing device, Evelyn recounts the story of their time together to her priest, played by Dylan McCormick.) The encounter of these two women makes for a philosophically rich, emotionally naked chamber piece that’s reminiscent of Bergman films like Persona or Through a Glass Darkly. Bovee and Meeks, both Sallitt stalwarts, give extraordinary performances as the two damaged sisters, one of whom can’t forgive their parents, the other of whom can’t get mad enough at them. All the Ships at Sea also ends on a heartbreaking grace note of a final twist—it’s worth seeing for the last two minutes alone.

Sallitt’s second movie, Honeymoon, also stars Edith Meeks and Dylan McCormick (his movies tend to draw from the same small group of actors, many of whom seem to appear almost exclusively in Dan Sallitt films). They play Mimi and Michael, two old friends who decide on an impulse to get married after reigniting a long-ago fling—and proceed to embark on what I sincerely hope is the least fun honeymoon in human history. Michael can’t perform sexually at first, Mimi takes it personally, and they quickly become trapped in a spiral of self-consciousness, petty sniping, and really bad sex. Honeymoon is unusual in its use of sex scenes not to arouse the audience, but to advance the plot. What happens between this awkward couple in bed becomes the story, as Mimi’s increasingly less subtle power plays clash with Michael’s tendency toward passivity and self-abnegation. Their dynamic doesn’t make for easy watching—you may find yourself wanting to strangle both lovers as much as they want to strangle each other—but Honeymoon at its best is a keen-eyed exploration of the difficulty of real intimacy.

Then there’s Polly Perverse Strikes Again!, a shot-on-video first effort that’s perhaps of interest mainly to Sallitt completists, but which sets its sights charmingly high. In this sex comedy about a man (S.A. Griffin) whose hard-partying, nymphomaniac ex-girlfriend (Dawn Wildsmith) pops up after many years to threaten his stable relationship with his current love (the dependably wonderful Bovee), Sallitt seems to be aiming for a tone that falls somewhere between Eric Rohmer’s wistful comedies of manners and the raunchy, black-humored provocations of Jean Eustache. Like all of Sallitt’s films, Polly Perverse is feminist without ever trumpeting that or any other ideology. He seems to specialize in creating female characters who are flawed, eccentric, and unconventionally beautiful—just like the weird, infuriating, lovable women you may actually know. Sallitt’s work exercises a similar fascination, with its productive tension between the repellent and the seductive, the familiar and the strange.