SmallWhiteHouseIt may be pretty obscure nowadays, but this was one of the key underground films of the nineties, a beyond-strange Tijuana-set reverie on the JFK assassination that freely incorporates pornography and scatology. SMALL WHITE HOUSE, from 1990, was largely dismissed by the underground press, although it was heavily promoted in the pages of Film Threat Video Guide (which in 1994 included it in their essential “25 Underground Films You Must See” ranking). Since then the film, for better or worse, has largely fallen off the map.

In early-1960s Tijuana a hustler named Plato puts on a private art exhibition in a cheap motel. In this way he lures a young couple, Jackie and Johnny, into his fold. The sexually voracious Jackie and laid-back skateboarder Johnny have just arrived in Tijuana, and are up for all manner of experimentation, sexual and otherwise. After Jackie pisses on a mannequin these three nutcases head to a bar where Plato’s mother Psyche works, crooning Julio Iglesias tunes to disinterested patrons. There Johnny becomes constipated and a cackling Plato pours milk on him as he makes out with Jackie in the crapper.

The following day Johnny is shot in the head as Plato drives him and Jackie through town. Alone in their apartment later on, Jackie enthusiastically masturbates to memories of the killing of Johnny—who has somehow come back to life.

Later in the week a new character, a shy redhead named Mary Lynne, happens upon Jackie and Johnny canoodling on a beach. Jackie is immediately smitten, and makes Mary Lynne a fixture in the orgies she and Johnny throw. When Mary Lynne is whisked away by a randy biker it seems this happy threesome is finished…but Mary Lynne returns, and Jackie proposes a three-way marriage. Mary Lynne, however, quickly grows disenchanted and commits suicide via a cereal of pills, leading Johnny and Jackie to hit the open sea in a rowboat.

Figuring this film out admittedly takes some doing. It often plays like a collection of disconnected skits tenuously held together by generic mariachi tunes—and indeed, that’s essentially what it is. Writer-director Richard Newton delights in tweaking convention at every turn: narrative continuity is continuously fractured by every means imaginable, including the repeated killing of Johnny, who is invariably brought back to life with no explanation.

Yet Newton’s visual brilliance is undeniable. The colorful imagery has a definite sense of style, and the gorgeous cinematography by Sven Kirsten is a joy to watch, with an artful, even subtle sheen. This doesn’t change the fact that the sexual angle is extremely blunt in every respect (sample dialogue: “At least I know where her dildo’s been!”), and that Newton has an unnatural obsession with urination.

Where things truly get strange are in the many oblique references to the JFK assassination. The subject was of course quite popular at the time SMALL WHITE HOUSE was made (its initial release coincided with that of Oliver Stone’s JFK), and appears to be Newton’s main concern. Note the fact that the protagonists are named Jackie, Johnnie and Mary Lynne (as in Monroe), along with the frequent references to “Camelot,” the sight of characters riding around in a Lincoln convertible and the oft-repeated image of Johnny’s head getting hit in slow motion by a bullet—and snapping backward and to the left. Truthfully I have no idea what Newton is trying to say about JFK and his death, in a film that ultimately adds up to a gorgeously mounted mess.

Vital Statistics

Traction Avenue Films

Director/Producer/Editor: Richard Newton
Screenplay: Richard Newton, Joy Nicholson
Cinematography: Sven Kirsten
Cast: Cristina Kuta, Orb Kamm, Heather Elias, Enrico Boettcher, Vanessa Ortiz, Richard Newton, Olga, Kathy Foy, Brian Doyle-Murray, Freedom Sukenick, Shahira Eversole, Iris Parker