Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Indies: Visually speaking

On May 1, J. and I attended a private screening of an independent movie filmed in Chicago and written and directed by a student. This is the second or third independent film I've seen in the past few years (Morvern Callar was another), and, with such little evidence, I'm trying not to see commonalities—and failing.

Both are dark, violent, and at times gory. In this movie are prostitution, HIV, abortion, beatings, obsession, infidelity, at least two murders, and four rapes (including a revenge rape of a man performed by a man who is hired by a female victim). Except for one short moment of slight levity, when the audience allowed itself to laugh hesitantly, the griminess of the film is unrelenting. Even the relatively upbeat ending doesn't quite move the viewer away from the ledge. If you had entered the theater as the most cheerful person in the world, you would exit with an emergency need for Prozac or Zoloft. Five minutes of beauty doesn't redeem two hours of pain.

I would guess that, depending on the source of their funding, independent filmmakers have more freedom to explore the human animal's dark side. They don't have to worry about the spinelessness of studio executives, the profit concerns of shareholders, or protests from mainstream American, which sometimes seems to find Hollywood's output shocking enough. Evil is more compelling than bland good, and some independent films strive to test the limits for the attention.

To be remembered, you have to do or make something memorable. A conventional story with conventional types and levels of sex and violence isn't going to bring you the attention you need to establish your name, reputation, and potential as a film auteur. The adroit portrayal of beatings, rapes, and murders is more likely to capture the attention of even the most jaded audience and critics. Not much new can be said about goodness. There is much that remains to be understood about evil, its causes, and its effects. This movie, and Morvern Callar, tries to hit you in the gut.

Even more so than with Morvern Callar, the visuals were rich, if clichéd. Fades and blurs were overused, along with other techniques that disorient the viewer while indicating transitions. Mostly, they draw attention to themselves, declaring, "Isn't this arty?" The same subject blurs and fades at the beginning and end to tell us that, after all that has happened, the world has come almost full circle, the city is still beautiful, and life goes on.

Film is, of course, a visual medium, and the directors of this movie and Morvern Callar become so focused on the visual art that they forget that, ideally, the visuals should support some kind of story. We get artistically contrived glimpses into the past lives of the three main characters, but they are so fragmented, disjointed, and out of context that it's hard to follow what happened, which makes it nearly impossible to figure out what is happening now. An online synopsis gave me a few clues, but even now I could not describe to you more than the most basic elements of the back stories. Without understanding those, the present is garbled and without the impact it might have had.

At various points the characters' lives intersect, sometimes meaningfully, sometimes not. Unable to pay her cab fare, one of the three female leads gives the taxi driver, also a main character, her phone number (try that in Chicago). As J. pointed out, the act seems significant, but nothing comes of it—it is a narrative dead end that leaves the moviegoer trying to figure out why. I also note that only in a movie would a woman who is between a man she knows to be a sociopath and an exit door move toward the man rather than attempting to flee.

Visually, the Chicago of this is a fairy-tale place, brightly lit and colorful, with downtown's glass and steel lovingly showcased. Except for some scenes on Lower Wacker Drive and of the taxi driver's spare, decaying room, the city looks like a dream, making the events of the story lines even more nightmarish. Missing from the mix here are the homeless, the insane homeless, the pretend homeless, and the other denizens of the street that even bedroom suburbanites encounter every day. It's Chicago but not quite Chicago—a Chicago where the surface grit is missing, and the ugliness is underground (literally) and underneath what appear to be normal lives.

All this ends on what appears to be an uplifting note; despite all that has happened to the three characters, they are optimistic and determined—even the woman with a death sentence hanging over her.

I couldn't share the optimism. After all, as the movie hints, life is threaded. Somewhere, a family must be mourning the murder of a good man who was in the wrong place at the wrong time. There are an innocent wife and child whose husband/father has proven to be an obsessive mental case. Then there's the specter of HIV, which, when we think about it, affects far more than the one person we see. There's a lot on the consciences of two of the characters—or should be. As in Morvern Callar, there's little evidence of it. The film ends in a feel-good way that can't negate the grimness that has been and will be.

In their efforts to create art that stands out, these independent filmmakers try too hard, choosing style over craft and shock over substance, forgetting to let their audiences in on the story and motivations. Both Morvern Callar and this movie are visually full, emotionally empty experiences. A little ambiguity can be thought provoking; too much is only frustrating. A good film, I think, needs to engage people, not alienate them with its self-conscious artiness, coyness, and moral distance.

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