At the centre, or is it the outer periphery, of the intricately constructed universe in The Wheel Of Heaven is an ongoing conversation between actress Kali Russell and director Joe Badon. Badon and his co-writer Jason Kruppa have scripted a rape scene involving Russell’s character Purity which Russell would prefer to see written out of the film altogether. This is a dialectic between a male auteur who exerts godlike authority over his production, and a female actor protectively seeking autonomy and agency for herself and her protagonist. It also involves a paradox: while Badon is in charge of the film, and has, as Russell acknowledges in a moment of belated exasperation, even written the very lines in which she complains about his writing, Russell has a proprietary relationship with the character(s) whom she herself impersonates and embodies. Even if Badon has written these rôles, Russell is also making them, at least in part, her own.
As Russell’s quest for free choice runs up against Badon’s prescribed plotting, this conflict, coming in gendered terms, is not only a comment on the polyphonous ensemble nature of cinema where no single individual is fully in command of The Wheel, but also a dramatisation of a broader clash between free will and determinism. The form of the film is both unstable, and constantly destabilised, presenting itself all at once as a script being written on a computer (and a cast table read of the script), as a soapish public access television miniseries (whose episodes ran, impossibly, from 1977 to 2099), as a children’s story, as DIY arts-and-crafts dioramas (with artist’s fanciful narratives attached), as a lo-fi sci-fi adventure and a Choose Your Own Adventure gamebook. Badon regularly interrupts these differently formatted scenarios to give directions and cues to his actors – to reassert his vision -with the crew, boom mics and cameras entering the frame to remind us of the film’s origins as a film and a constructed fiction.
The Wheel Of Heaven was conceived as a short, but kept expanding, first with the release of prologue piece The Blood Of The Dinosaurs (2021) – which now opens the feature – and then with four other formally headed parts. There are glitches and errors, faux ad breaks (including for ‘skate board attorney’ “Rad” Abrams and Hubbardian book Dino-retics), misplaced library sound effects, behind-the-scenes shots, twins, masquerades, mind-altering substances, children’s illustrations, lysergic montages, jazzy split screens, sitcom-style canned laughter, a big-chested, hard-rocking ‘Elvis Breastly’, a beatbox-toting monkey man and repeated cutaways to scenes from Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Vampyr (1932) and John Cromwell’s Of Human Bondage (1934), in an onslaught of alienation effects that rattle the viewer’s grip on reality, even as Badon’s presence keeps returning us to it.
Unifying all these disparate, overlapping segments is Russell herself, although she plays multiple rôles in very different ways with a real versatility. First she is herself (and it is a rôle, as much a part of the film as any of her other performances in it); then she is good-natured, naïve outsider artist Margaret Corn, creator of narrative tableaux and model spacecraft; Captain Corn, piloting a spaceship to “the fabled Centre of the Universe – the place where all things converge, the place of new beginnings and new creations”); Marge, a mechanic who reads a ‘Determine Your Own Destiny’ book called The Wheel of Heaven; and Purity, the book’s protagonist, who gets lost in the woods while in search of her own double. Much as Badon holds over Russell the threat of a violent sex scene, her multiple personae must similarly resist menacing men (all played by Jeff Pearson): a ‘really bad man’ is a recurring figure in both Margaret Corn’s dreams and art; the evil Dr Universe threatens to dematerialise Captain Corn and her ship; Marge’s boss Harry insists upon sexually objectifying her in the workplace; and the mysterious, vampiric Mr Universe lures Purity to a raucous par-tay in his woodland home for his own sinister ends.
The Wheel of Heaven in fact offers wheels within wheels. For it is a madcap layering of multi-level, multi-generic worlds all used to tell essentially the same story, not unlike Yoshihiro Nakamura’s Fish Story (2009), Christopher Nolan’s Inception (2010), Tom Tykwer, Lana and Lilly Wachowski’s Cloud Atlas (2012) or the Daniels’ Everything Everywhere All At Once (2022), only occupying a far more marginal/experimental space in the cinematic universe. The attempts variously by Purity, Marge, Captain Corn, Margaret Corn and Kali Russell to go off script and to chose their own adventure bring us to an ambiguous fork in the road, where it remains unclear whether they have finally broken free of their pre-written destiny, or merely fulfilled it. Badon may have created this universe, he may ultimately be its Doctor and Mister – but in placing Margaret Cook within it, he has created another demiurge, similar to himself but of the opposite sex, whose imagination exercises its own control, and whose escapist perspective on the film’s cosmos is very different, even transformative.
strap: Joe Badon’s form-flipping freakout feature shows a woman seeking freedom from a man’s control in multiple layers of reality
© Anton Bitel