It’s been two days since I watched Kent Jones and Tom Huckabee’s 1983 experimental film, Taking Tiger Mountain, starring the late, great Bill Paxton in the lead role. It is a film that has weighed on my mind for a number of reasons.
First of all, the political conspiracy at the heart of the film feels incredibly atypical of other films that have dealt with similar material – films like The Manchurian Candidate. Everything that happens to Paxton’s “Billy Hampton” feels more like a nightmare than any sort of concrete reality. As he’s being observed by hidden cameras, applying makeup to his face, stripping off his clothes and humping the bed, while disembodied female voices reveal that his gender has been changed twice while he’s been under observation – immediately, the audience is thrown into an otherworld. The non-linear stream of consciousness editing style keeps us tethered to this particular atmosphere of dread.
As Billy wanders aimlessly through this desolate small town, full of abandoned buildings and old hotels, prostitutes and sex traffickers, it is that unshakeable feeling of the Uncanny that hovers over everything that we see and every word that we hear. Taking Tiger Mountain was shot without sound, so the dialogue and effects were recorded in post. As with many Italian films of the sixties, which inspired the film to some degree, the mouths seldom match the words that we are hearing, driving home this feeling of otherness yet again.
This is a film that revolves around brainwashing and an assassination plot, but those elements come second to Billy’s overall journey, which is a deep dive into his subconscious. Billy’s sexuality is one of the many focal points here. During a voiceover at the beginning of the film, we hear the following quote from Billy: “I have this one fantasy about my penis being really, really big. Real big. It’s like as tall as me. And these angels are hovering over it and their wings are beating really fast. And I can kinda feel the air on my big penis, man. When I explode, its like snowing or something. It’s just raining down all over these people. Everybody’s lickin’ their lips and shit. Really smilin’ a lot and stuff.” As Billy is under observation during these moments, the security cameras reveal that he frequently walks around his room completely nude, and almost always with a full erection. Later, Billy states, “How does orgasm make me feel? It makes me feel – it makes me feel like God, man. When I cum – no, not like God, more like – more like Elvis Presley or something.”
Over the course of Taking Tiger Mountain, Billy has sexual encounters with two women. The voiceovers during these scenes are beautifully ethereal at times, and while the sex on the screen is unsimulated, it never feels gratuitous in nature, and is almost always connected in some way with Billy’s spirituality. After these particular scene, he presses on, cast further into the mystery that he has found himself in. The people around him speak in riddles and non-sequiturs. He dreams of being eaten alive by a vulture, and at one point, it seems that his doppelgänger pays a visit to his hotel room.
This film was meant to be “felt”, not understood. To me, it is a dream, moving from one place to another, moving at a deliberate place, with no rhyme or reason. The filmmakers behind Taking Tiger Mountain have crafted an entire world here. It’s one that I hope to revisit again very soon.