Call it Six Degrees of Decoration. Dermal decoration, that is.
In “Eastern Promises,” cool-eyed Russian Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen) stands nearly naked before several smartly dressed criminals. From a shady London eatery, he waits to be inducted into the vicious ranks of a Russian Mafia family. All eyes are on his ink-stained limbs and torso, long since transformed into a fleshy canvas of blue cats, churches, and crows. A huge crucifix drapes his back. Acting as a road map of past misdeeds, prison sentences, and personality traits, the branded skin reveals his ruthlessness.
“No forced tattoos?” asks one evaluator.
“None,” he responds, confirming his unwillingness to act as a sex slave – or “outcast” – during time behind bars. Stars adorning both knees reveal the recruit’s refusal to submissively kneel in front of others. His evaluators gladly accept Nikolai into their unholy alliance of sex traffickers, where young women are imported from the Ukraine into London and sold to depraved, deep-pocketed customers. To decipher the symbols on Nikolai’s nude body is to read a blood-soaked biography.
In using Russian prison tattoos as its primary metaphor, “Eastern Promises” shares linkage with an obscure indie documentary that broke viewers’ hearts when it toured film festivals in 2002. Alix Lambert’s “Mark of Cain” (originally released in 2000) took filmgoers on a fascinating, sad journey through Russia’s prison system. The female filmmaker drank vodka with guards, eventually persuading the tipsy tenders to allow her access behind bars – direct to felony inmates. Once inside the cells, Lambert documented dozens of prisoners speaking about the meanings behind their plentiful tattoos.
“Mark of Cain” is a mesmerizing ride. Skin, inks, needles, guitar strings, shaver motors, urine, blood, and the rubber of shoe soles are synergized into life maps both sinister and beautiful in their detail and emotion. We’ve all seen talking heads in documentary film, but never “talking flesh” – until now. Smiling cats, smoking skulls, chest-sized crosses, birds of prey, and Russian dictators drawn into dermis symbolize the status, crimes, sentences, and histories of wearers.
Credit Mortensen, a longtime friend of Lambert, for asking her to provide copies of “Cain” and Russian Prison Tattoos (Schiffer Books), the film’s 2003 soft-cover companion piece. The actor then sent these materials to Cronenberg for use as research for “Eastern Promises.” Ultimately, the tats took on a larger role in “Promises,” and Lambert is thanked in the film’s end credits. It’s the best kind of cinematic collaboration, where filmmakers coordinate their knowledge in pursuit of more accurate depictions of human nature.
“Since I knew him already,” she says of Mortensen, “it seemed a strange and wonderful coincidence that this actor who I admired and this director who I admired were going to address this subject matter, which I found so compelling.”
Meanwhile, the “Eastern Promises” / “Mark of Cain” connection casts light on the talent of Lambert, a truly maverick artist, writer, photographer, and filmmaker. “I have an unhealthy fascination with crime,” she admits with a laugh. The label is fitting, considering her resume. In addition to the criminal vibe she churned up for “Cain,” Lambert compiled Mastering the Melon (released in 2003 by Galeria Javier Lopez Publications), a published collection of art projects with its own shrewd depictions of penal culture, featuring – among other things – a disguised undercover agent and family. Photographed in domestic, candid images while they hang out at a backyard swimming pool, these everyday folks could be anyone – aside from the black ski masks hiding their faces and reminding us of dad’s hazardous vocation.
Currently, Lambert is assembling an ambitious fusion of crime and pop culture images. Crime (Fuel Publishing), her upcoming book, will contrast the reality of lawbreaking with its depictions in entertainment mediums. “There will be a fact-fiction thing toggling back and forth,” Lambert explains, where filmmakers and authors will speak about their work, while actual cops, ex-cons, and corrections experts provide their own counterpoints. What do bona fide coke magnates think of Al Pacino’s Tony Montana? How do real narcs feel about “Narc”?
“Eastern Promises,” for example, is represented by interviews with its director and star, alongside the perspective of actual Russian offenders. “There are six pages of interviews related to the film,” Lambert reveals. “We settled on five conversations with Russian prisoners, then interviews with David and Viggo. You have the fact and the fiction.”
“I’ve tried to cluster other projects in a similar fashion,” she elaborates. “A friend of mine, Matthew Maher, plays a murderous pedophile in ‘Gone Baby Gone.’ I’ve interviewed him, then author Dennis Lehane and director Ben Affleck.”
“I have a friend who was involved in the criminal culture, and later, the legitimate entertainment world. I asked him about crime representations in film that are compelling. He cites the last scene in ‘A History of Violence.’ Then I asked David (Cronenberg) if this meant more to him, coming from someone who actually led a double life, like the character from the film.”
“John Hillcoat (Australian director of ‘The Proposition’) talked to me about a guy who was a cop, then worked with the Mafia, before eventually becoming an actor. You see these criminals and cops show up in movies, then see actors become criminals.”
The author chuckles. “It all comes full circle.”
It’s testimony to Lambert’s complexity that she can laugh about the strange blending of some personalities in both illicit and show biz circles, before abruptly turning her discussion to the victims of crime. “As a kid, I had a babysitter who was strangled – and survived it. Speaking with her for the book, I learned that she walked out the theatre during ‘Dial M for Murder,’ when Grace Kelly was being strangled. She couldn’t watch the scene, although she loved the rest of the movie. When I was 18, a friend of mine was murdered. I interviewed her sister.”
Film fans can expect several moviemakers to pop up in Crime, while aficionados of the unlawful will find LA homicide detective Steve Hodel discussing Hollywood’s bloody Black Dahlia killing. Hodel’s own book, Black Dahlia Avenger, described the lawman’s horrifying realization that his own father, Dr. George Hodel, committed the notorious 1947 murder of twenty-two-year-old Elizabeth Short. Meanwhile, a long, diverse list of additional cops, crime victims, police chiefs, criminal defense lawyers, private investigators, and other real-world experts will show up in Lambert’s unique tome.
Ultimately, did she come to any conclusion about the nature of crime? “Like David Mamet told me,” she responds inconclusively, “You won’t find answers.”
Lambert’s veins pump renegade blood. For one art experiment, she haunted chapels in Las Vegas and New York to marry a string of suitors – quickly divorcing each successive husband before moving on to the next (this doesn’t count the legal domestic partnership to a woman, which she celebrated in Hungary). She has flown with the Blue Angels (for PBS’ short-lived ‘Life 360’ series, in an episode which she both directed and narrated) and floated aboard the Goodyear Blimp. During another daring art experiment, she even formed an estrogen-powered variation on Spinal Tap – the all-girl grunge band Platipussy. Clearly, she’s marching to the unconventional beat of her own drummer.
“I go to art schools and speak with students,” describes Lambert. “At one of these functions, someone said, ‘You’re just doing these things because you want to.’ I said, ‘Yeah – as well you should.”
Having worked in so many different creative mediums, is Lambert filthy rich? No way, she says with a refreshing lack of ego. In fact, Lambert uses the question to burst several myths about artist-on-the-road decadence. “People sometimes say, ‘Oh, you’re so lucky,’ in a flattering way, and I try to take it that way. I am lucky. But for a time, I lived like a f*****g sewer rat with no heat, no hot water, and no kitchen. I feel like telling people, ‘To do these things, you have to visit Russia (while directing “Cain”) with one dollar and sixty-seven cents in your pocket.’ I used to live with a friend, where we had no heat, through an entire New York City winter. We’d put on hats and gloves, and end up sleeping in the same bed ‘cause we were so cold. We had so many blankets and clothes on that we literally couldn’t move. We’d shower at friends’ homes. We would go to special events and grand openings that had free food.
“There have been times when I’ve gotten movie star treatment, with five star hotels and the best restaurants. My ‘Wedding’ piece got a lot of attention. Then I would get home, and huddle in the corner. There are a lot of misunderstandings (about artists being rich), but it’s reasonable to see why people would think that. There are assumptions about gender, too. One hundred percent of the people who contact me, for film festivals and other events, address their mail to ‘Mr. Alix Lambert.’”
It’s Ms. Lambert, thank you very much, and she can even act. In theme with her crime obsession, the daring multi-talent scored a bit role in producer David Milch’s western-theme “Deadwood” cable television series. “I played a w***e,” she describes unpretentiously. The role led to more lucrative assignments, as a “Deadwood” screenwriter (Episode 6, season 3: “A Rich Find,” from 2006). Her ongoing professional relationship with Milch resulted in both writing and producing credits on the producer’s current surfer series, “John from Cincinnati.”
As if this isn’t enough to keep her busy, Lambert describes another project that’s underway. “I wrote a script,” she reveals. “It’s a bleak and miserable story. It concerns a real-life murder.” Once again, the topic of crime surfaces in her work.
Does Lambert’s self-confessed fascination with illegal activity make you uncomfortable? Relax. The director has also helmed a number of projects completely free of felonious misdeeds. She has produced segments for television’s respected “Nightline” series, and directed 7 mini-films for the PBS series, “Life 360,” including a perspective on surfing gurus the Malloy Brothers.
“Box of Birds” (2002) captures the three surfboard-wielding siblings tackling huge waves on New Zealand beaches, then retreating to their family ranch in California. Not only does Lambert vividly capture the spray of saltwater air and the tar-dark waters of a beach at sunset – she also defies expectations. Rather than merely film another extreme sports documentary, the filmmaker infuses her short with some poignant and insightful Malloy family history. Suddenly, we’re watching a wise film about reverence for human life that transcends its surfing subject matter. “They’re amazingly grounded,” she describes of the Malloy Brothers. Judging from her admiring tone, Lambert enjoys stable psyches and extreme personalities with equal relish.
Hopefully, the high visibility of “Eastern Promises” will prompt an interest in Lambert’s work, and push her devastating “Mark of Cain” into the deserved limelight. Reflecting back on the film, its director remembers the unique generosity of inmates. Stripped of their pasts and cast from society, these forgotten felons nonetheless gifted the female visitor with their few remaining possessions.
“It’s a very Russian tradition – gift giving. There were a number of things given to me from prison that meant a lot, from people who literally had nothing. Someone would take a necklace off and give it to me. A deck of cards was slipped to me on my way out of White Swan Prison.”
The average, commercially churned out card deck is nothing to boast about. But a Russian Prison card deck blends together food, bodily fluids, boot soot, paper, ink, and time into something personal and unique. “It was made out of pages of books so thin, they had to be bound together with the dough from bread. They make incredible designs by burning the bottom of their boots. Red is done with blood.”
Other gifts actually lived and breathed. “They gave me a kitten. I couldn’t take it with me. It was endearing to me that they would take care of prison cats. They were eating every three days, but they would still take care of these cats.”
Meanwhile, one gift is even making a high-profile appearance onscreen – in “Eastern Promises.” Several scenes depict Mortensen’s busy hands flipping a set of interconnected “stress beads.” According to Lambert, the beads were fabricated from melted cigarette lighters by a Russian prisoner, and given to her during the filming of “Cain.” Mortensen asked to borrow them, before ultimately immortalizing the gift on film.
Most people will associate Lambert with “Eastern Promises” tattoo imagery. However, another scene from the film – involving a finger-less corpse – might better convey this creative powerhouse’s sweetly twisted, inspiringly oddball aesthetic. Why? Consider the following anecdote. “I had this dream recently,” Lambert describes with a laugh, “in which I had disposed of a body – except for two remaining fingers. A question kept running through my mind. Can you leave fingerprints on fingers?”
Welcome to the world of Alix Lambert.
You can contact Ms. Lambert through her web site, Pink Ghetto Productions