In Jennifer Montgomery’s Deliver, four friends from the city decide to get away from it all. They pack for a camping trip out by a remote river in the deep country, an area soon to be completely altered by a reservoir project that will submerge the valley in water. After some tense run-ins with the “redneck” locals, they canoe in the river and begin to feel the liberating power of nature. Until, that is, a brutal encounter with a couple of backwoods rapists. A horrific sexual assault ensues, leading to the killing of one of their tormentors. Now the friends are truly in unknown territory.
If this scenario sounds familiar, that’s because it’s taken directly from John Boorman and James Dickey’s classic Deliverance, but what Montgomery does with it changes our entire perception of the original’s homosexual panic and masculinity-in-crisis survival story. Gender-inverting the cast with a roster of female film and video artists (Peggy Ahwesh, Jackie Goss, Su Friedrich, and Meredith Root) and divesting the original’s emotional intensity with a patient and distanced approach toward the sensational action (the encounter with the rapists is captured in long shots that drain much of the dramatic heaviness; the turbulent trip through the rapids is intentionally misdirected so as to thwart purely visceral involvement), Montgomery highlights how the power dynamic inherent in “homosocial sexual violence” as represented in Boorman and Dickey’s film is based on a patriarchal hierarchy taken largely for granted. This is no country for women, imply Boorman and Dickey, so that when the women of Deliver — all of whom have chosen not to have children, and one of whom symbolically sports a tattoo of the female reproductive organs on her forearm — reenact the nearly mythical ritualist rebirth through violation and danger we’re made to question just why, exactly, this estrogen powered remake feels so “off.” Why can the myth only work for one sex? And how come the threat of forced sex here isn’t as “convincing” as in the original?
Deliver is a conceptual work, to be sure, but like the best conceptual art it has to be experienced and not just heard of to fully make sense, both in its moment to moment tweakings of Deliverance and in its multi-layered investigation of sexual politics and representation and how they relate to our conventional consumption of studio-manufactured myths. It’s a daring and provocative film that journeys into the undiscovered territory of cultural assumptions and differences, and is even more powerful than its source material for doing so.
Deliver is the first screening from Migrating Forms, the organization that has emerged from the ashes of the New York Underground Film Festival to present the latest and best of experimental film and video. It plays tonight, with a discussion with the filmmaker and cast, at BAMcinematek at 7pm.