The Cage


Sidney Peterson was one of, if not the most influential pioneers of avant-garde film of the 20th century. He was/is held in the highest regard by all as one of the kingpins of the avant-garde film renaissance that took place in San Francisco in the early 1950s. Peterson is one of the few artists that was fully respected and appreciated not only after his death but during his life as well. So respected, in fact, that he was given the opportunity to found what was called "Workshop 20" at what was then called The California School for Fine Arts (The San Francisco Art Institute), thus forming the first class to ever be offered teaching film. Peterson used students both behind the scenes and for actors and actresses so most of the classes consisted of filming under Peterson's supervision. For The Cage, "he chose the student with the maddest expression as the protagonist" (Sitney, 48). This is coincidental because that student went on to drop out of school half way through shooting and abandon the film, requiring the use of another actor.

Both of Peterson's films The Lead Shoes and, The Cage have found their niche among other classic films that Peterson himself would regard as, "the boiler plate of the Museum of Modern Art." (Sitney, 44) Using the techniques of his major influences, Dali and Bunuel, Peterson was able to take and incorporate previous used camera techniques with some newly fabricated techniques of his own. Peterson illustrates this fact in a quote found in Sitney's Third Edition of Visionary Film, when he says that his film, The Cage was filmed using, "every trick in the book and a few that weren't." (Sitney, 47) These two films fit a style that seems to follow Peterson through all of his work. They are open to and seem to fit an enormous array of different interpretations.

Peterson was aware of a fact that may hamper the ability of other great directors. Peterson would shoot "with the idea in mind that the structural coercion of the films comes in editing." (Sitney, 47) Because of this knowledge and his ability, Peterson is regarded as a master of synthesizing. Much of his work has been thought of as more interesting than successful. He was not always successful with his attempts, which is what makes him such a great artist. The Cage (1947) is one film, however, that is unanimously viewed as not only a success but also a foundation and point of comparison for the filmmakers that would follow Peterson.

In the 3rd edition of Visionary Film Sitney describes The Cage by saying that, "In its final version The Cage describes the adventures of a "mad" artist. In a symbolic or real self-mutilation, he takes out his own eye, which immediately escapes from his studio and into an open field and then meanders through San Francisco. His blinding is accompanied by complete schizophrenia. He alternates with his double throughout the film. His girlfriend, who is also his model, frightened by his mad groping around his studio for the lost eye, gets a doctor. The girl, the doctor, and one of the two protagonists then chase around the city after the eye. Throughout the film the perspective alternates between that of the pursuers and that of the eye itself. The eye's vision is filmed through an anamorphic lens [this results in the lateral and vertical distortion of images emphasized by a twisting movement of the lens which shifts the axis of concentration and elongation (Sitney, 49)]. The strategy of the doctor is to catch the eye and destroy it. To save the eye, the double has to thwart the doctor's attacks with darts and rifles. Eventually the eye is recovered, and the schizophrenic becomes the original young man. His first act as a reunited man is to knock out the doctor who otherwise would have ruined his recovery, and presumably, taken the girl. In a deliberately periodic ending, the artist and girl walk off hand in hand. He embraces her in a field, and she flies out of his arms into a tree." (Sitney, 48)

--Dan Anderheggen, 2006


Sidney Peterson