By RJ Smith
Reading time 11 Minutes
The late filmmaker Andy Milligan did not leave you guessing
The late filmmaker Andy Milligan did not leave you guessing. Right up at the beginning of his long-lost, unfinished House of the Seven Belles, a couple of biddies — sorry, but the word seems appropriate here — are pruning roses in the front of their once-glorious, now-decaying plantation. It’s right at the end of the Civil War. They talk about plans for a ball they are throwing that evening with Union soldiers who have been staying on the premises.
One of the ladies notes she can’t even remember the last time they threw a party.
“Oh you can’t remember anything, anyway!” the other one claps back. The first woman continues gamely, while snipping off another rose. “Flowers are beautiful,” she exclaims. The older gal is having none of it. “Shut up!” she answers.
House of the Seven Belles is on one level a multigenerational family bitchfest, like The Magnificent Ambersons or Falcon Crest but with way better costumes. Money is tight in every corner of the house. The Southern men have mostly left or come back wounded, and like everybody in the region these gals are struggling to make ends meet. The film cuts from the garden to the plantation’s stables, where a stable boy, seen throughout the film flaccidly stroking a horse’s tail, complains to one of the belles that he hasn’t been paid since the beginning of the previous month. The response is comic: it’s not like he hasn’t worked for free before, she cuts. And besides, “just do your job!”
Everywhere in this southern costume extravaganza folks are fighting over money, and when they aren’t they are just fighting from habit. This South is a land of failure, and these crabs in their barrel-hoop skirts have their claws permanently extended as they gouge one another and teach the men a thing or three about survival. For the rest of the film (the ending was never shot, as Milligan ran out of money; the film was long considered lost until his biographer Jimmy McDonough discovered it in the materials Andy left him before dying) money and bitter resentment lead the belles, the dingbat townies, and a few fat cat-civic leaders who are no match for the ladies, to plot against one another. The railroad is coming from the north, and the old boys find it useful to steal the belle’s land and sell it to the railroad. Meanwhile, the doyenne of the belles makes a pact with an old black conjure woman (secretly also a family member) to use hoodoo to kill of those plotting against her.
The result is a potboiler with S&M undertones, where jolts of gory murder interrupting one belle or another right when she’s slapping some hapless guy around. In our own world, when the Civil War ended a call went out across the bitterest white precincts of the Confederacy: The South’s Gonna Rise Again. In the House of the Seven Belles nothing so defiant lifts above the mire. Here, the south just seethes, stuck in a terminal hissy fit.
He was born Andrew Jackson Milligan
He was born Andrew Jackson Milligan, in the north in 1929. His namesake, the seventh president of the United States, was born in the south in 1767 and was, to use the parlance of the 19th century, a real douche extruder. Andrew Jackson owned around 150 slaves. As president he moved Native Americans off their land by the millions with a dream of extending plantations from sea to shining sea. Meanwhile his own plantation, The Hermitage, is today a major tourist attraction in Nashville.
The south, plantations, these things meant something on a personal level to Milligan if House of the Seven Belles is any indication. A scene from the film: a scheming redhead goes out into the woods for a rendezvous with a married man. She waits for him to arrive, and while she waits, she does what lots of characters do in the film do while waiting for something to happen, which is standing around smacking at the mosquitoes that are biting something fierce in the steamy Staten Island summer. Finally, the liaison arrives, and she slaps at him: “Where the hell you been? I was beginning to give you up for a lost cause…” And there it is, as casually tossed off as most everything else in this no-budget epic. The Lost Cause.
If southerners like the Lafleur clan at the center of House of the Seven Belleshad a vision that their way of life was blessed by God, after the North got through with them what they had was a sad conviction: that their way, though lost and beaten down, was at least somehow made just and made holy from the beating that they took. Getting beat up defined them, as did giving as good as they got. It’s a myth that lasts all the way to today: the noble rebel, the death-trip beautiful loser who kept their soul by not selling out to heavy-handed outsiders.
What did this picture mean to Milligan? It was a weird leap in a new direction when he shot it in 1979. Milligan liked to work within the logic of film genres, and his favorite genre by far was the bloody horror film, including the one he had finished just a year before, 1979’s Legacy of Blood. But while Belles has it’s gross-out moments, as when a severed head rolls into the middle of a church sewing circle like a cannon ball, or, okay, the “lancing” of a Confederate soldier’s infected leg, overall it’s definitely no horror film.
Maybe the chance to dress his group of castaways in clothes evoking 19th century southern balls inspired the guy who had run a dressmaking business under the nom de plume Raffiné. A skilled couturier, Milligan whipped up the the raspberry swallowtail coat a Lafleur wears when busting the balls of the stable boy, and the butterscotch-plaid suit the dressmaker in the film wears in when Magnolia wrestles him to the ground and humiliates him to universal delight. The clothes make the man, as the saying goes, but in this film they unmake him, too.
But watching Belles, it’s hard not to come away with a feeling that the new direction had extra meaning for him. It’s the Lost Cause, a sentiment that must have resonated with the director. A few years before he’d had a falling out with his distributor Lew Mishkin. Milligan was broke, contemplating moving off Staten Island, where he ran a hotel, and would ultimately head to California.
He felt beat down; like everyone in the movie, he had his hand out. It was getting harder to make these pictures, and he couldn’t not make them. This was a guy who never grew out of his childhood impulse to put on a show. And that’s because on some level, the art is never about the finished piece to him. It’s not just Belles and Compass Rose (also streaming here) that were left uncompleted. You can see in the raw acting, featuring multiple styles from catatonic to professional, how Milligan lets his performers figure out how or if to read their lines. He doesn’t want to put a glaze on his hams. Sure there’s a story line he’s developing: in fact Belles has more complicated plotting than some Milligan films. And yet, if you focus on that you are missing the point. The point is the claws in the flesh, the need that gets exposed, the way everybody is bought and sold, fucked and cast off, almost like in real life.
What’s real to him is the interaction among the lost souls — around him and on the screen. In a few more years, once the stable boys finish plundering the Lafleur silver, the family mansion’s cupboards will be stocked by an ill-matched assortment of chipped china. Meanwhile the cast and crew of House of the Seven Belles is already there: a divine mix of theatre types and castaways he pulled in off the street to join his glum band of leather boys, actors, petty hoods, lost souls and women willing to sit on men. That’s where the art is for Milligan: in building a family out of unlikely material.
Here was a chance to grow a family he could relate to, laugh with and at, not to mention dominate. That’s what we see on screen in every moment of House of the Seven Belles. And it’s woman-dominated, another point that that Milligan wants us to notice. They don’t have the economic power, but they hold their own against a lot of dim-witted woebegone stud horses, through a combination of witchcraft, pussy power, emotional Kung Fu and more tangible forms of corporal punishment. A belle at one point is asked what she’s reading. Wuthering Heights, she answers. It inspires her mother to say, “Some day women will be doin’ a lot of things.”
How would this film have ended? My strong suspicion is that while the women clearly had all the good lines, they were going to fall victim to that Southern gothic mansion. I bet the house would become a flaming deathtrap in which all the slappers, biters, whiners, ninnies, biddies and backstabbers were going to get their cinematic comeuppance in a Dixie-fried blaze of glory that would have predated the way Tarantino has ended most of his movies in the last ten or so years. Only it would have been better.
RJ Smith is author of American Witness, a biography of filmmaker and photographer Robert Frank, and The One: The Life and Music of James Brown. He is currently at work on a biography of Chuck Berry. Smith lives in Chicken Corner, California.