One of the most elusive figures in cinema is a female filmmaker whose name is so little-known that it hardly even makes lists of underrated directors. She is Juleen Compton, an American independent filmmaker who made two transcendent features back-to-back in 1965 and 1966, Stranded and The Plastic Dome of Norma Jean, before virtually disappearing into obscurity. These two films, which screened at Metrograph in 2017, are returning for a weekend (June 22–23) with restored 35mm prints from the UCLA Film and Television Archive. Having never received home release treatment, these movies are otherwise impossible to find or watch—a shame, because they’re due for wider recognition. Ever since I first discovered Compton at those screenings, I’ve been waiting, fantasizing about the next time I’ll be able to encounter them, to relive the scenes I cherished while becoming conscious of how rare and fleeting they were in the very moment I was watching them. A Juleen Compton viewing experience is not only vital, but also precious, and should thus be first priority for cinephiles.
Compton is among many talented women directors who have been denied robust filmmaking careers despite making auspicious debut films: Barbara Loden, Leslie Harris, Kathleen Collins, and Susan Skoog. Compton, in comparison, had better access and opportunity than most. She came from wealth, made a name for herself in real estate and interior design, and held some societal status (she was married to theater director and drama critic Harold Clurman, who was previously married to famed acting coach Stella Adler). Compton had the money to make movies, an advantage not many are afforded. She self-funded her first feature Stranded for almost $300,000, which, calculated for inflation amounts to nearly $2.5 million now. By putting up her own money, the strong-willed Compton did not have to bend to any studio’s will. Appropriately, this adventure film about a woman who travels across Greece with her lover and best friend (and let’s not forget, adorable dog), carries an air of extravagance and autonomy that mirrors her actual filmmaking process. Of course, Compton was a privileged white woman, and had more resources than many other filmmakers of marginalized groups, but if she were a man, it’s not hard to imagine she would’ve been as heralded as her contemporary, John Cassavetes.
Stranded, which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 1965, coincided with the height of the French New Wave, and carries similar traits of youth and carelessness, complete with a Jules and Jim homage: a woman runs around with two male companions, though in Compton’s vision, one of them is gay. (A charming dance sequence also feels like a tribute to Godard’s Bande à Part.) But the French New Wave was a male-dominated genre, with the exception of the late Agnès Varda, and Stranded’s lead character Raina (played by Compton herself) feels so ahead of her time: She's a messy but empowered feminist heroine, free and irrational in a way that I find aspirational in female characters. She thwarts marriage proposals for sexual liberation, runs away from a conventional lifestyle, and after a near-drowning experience, quips, “I almost lost my hat.” She is a fantasy self, and most rewarding of all, isn’t met with finger-pointing demise for her lifestyle choices.
Stranded also features some of the most breathtaking waterside scenes that would make Antonioni seasick with envy, and the most luminous nighttime photography in American indie cinema. In Stranded, the sea is inky and mysterious—though not menacing—while bodies are outlined with just the slightest touch of the moonlight. Compton had a romantic eye for her dreamy locations, and adapted mainstream vacation movies as her own: there is a Roman Holiday-esque walk down a flight of stairs, but despite the runaway motif, Stranded is altogether different.
Her second film, The Plastic Dome of Norma Jean, also played Cannes, and was honored with a special award at the festival in 1966. If Stranded is more visually stunning to look at, Norma Jean, about a teen girl who’s exploited for her psychic powers by a rock band that resembles The Beatles, is perhaps an even more interesting movie. The melodic rock music is absolutely euphoric—the first dance sequence is especially unforgettable—but the score is also noteworthy: it was composed by Michel Legrand. This underseen film, which was recommended by Stephen Colbert on an episode of The Colbert Report in 2013, also boasts the debut role of then-25-year-old Sam Waterston. The Ozarks-set dark fantasy of hallucinatory sequences, the circus-like plastic dome where the band performs, and the image of a blonde woman in despair feel very proto-David Lynch—it was released a year before Lynch’s very first short and 11 before his first feature, Eraserhead—though, of course, it is hardly recognized as such. Sharon Henesy, in her first of only four roles, plays Norma Jean with wide-eyed naïveté, overwhelmed by her own coming-of-age and psychic powers before she eventually cracks from the soul-sucking, money-grabbing pressure. It’s a poignant metaphor for womanhood in an exploitative, opportunistic society, as well as biting commentary on fame and celebrity culture that’s still relevant today.
After Stranded and Norma Jean, Compton moved to L.A. with hopes of making it big in Hollywood. UCLA’s website states that Compton was frustrated by the industry’s sexist hiring practices. The ’70s only saw two TV movie writing credits from Compton before she directed her final film, Buckeye and Blue, in 1988. It sadly didn’t do much for late-career Compton appreciation, or revival of her directorial efforts. Little is known about Compton now. By all accounts, she lives in the Hamptons and goes by the name Justine. Word has it that she dropped by previous Metrograph screenings of her films incognito. She sounds as elusive and enigmatic as her films, though the biggest mystery to anyone who’s witnessed her filmmaking genius will be: why isn’t Juleen Compton a bigger name in cinema?
Kristen Yoonsoo Kim is a South Korea-born, New York-based film critic whose writing has appeared in The Village Voice, GQ, Pitchfork, and elsewhere.