By Karina Longworth
Of the seven features I watched in full whilst at the 2009 CineVegas Film Festival, it seemed that the bravest endeavors, those that took the greatest stabs into the unknown both formally and conceptually, were actually shot on film. If this isn’t notable enough in a space increasingly dominated by digital photography (and, all too often, an aesthetic indifference that fails to push beyond the ease of use of the tools), the fact that films like “Impolex,” “Modus Operandi” and “Redland” are all the first features of men either barely or not quite the age of 30 is astounding. While other young filmmakers exploit ever-changing technology to shrink production budgets and experiment with non-theatrical models of distribution, Alex Ross Perry, Frankie Latina and Asiel Norton have made uncompromising films that defy contemporary technological trends and notions of financial convenience.
I’ve written about “Impolex” before so I won’t go on about it at length, but it’s worth mentioning in the context of CineVegas’ celluloid trend, for at least two reasons. CineVegas screened a gorgeous 35mm print of the film, blown up from 16mm, which the director had made expressly for this premiere. Perry, who edited “Impolex” on his home computer, didn’t have to do this — CineVegas could have easily shown the film via Beta tape, as it was seen at Migrating Forms –– but Perry was adamant that he make good on his promise made to cinematographer Sean Williams to show the film on film. And at the Q & A of the first screening, Perry explained that his desired aesthetic, inspired by WWII documentaries, could only be accomplished by shooting in 16mm. “This is just what WWII looks like to me,” he said. The use of “old” tools is so married to the content that the use of film was not negotiable.
Similarly, “Redland” would not be “Redland” if Asiel Norton hadn’t shot on film, and although it would be hard to peg such a succinct generic ancestor for this extremely visual and narratively elliptical ode to physical desperation, Norton is even more aggressive than Perry in literally shooting for visual nostalgia. The story of a dirt-poor family of five living in a secluded mountain shack during the (first?) great depression, the first image of Redland is of teenage daughter Mary-Ann (young Maggie Rizer look-a-like Lucy Adden) alone in a field, punching herself in the gut to induce an abortion. It’s an almost unbearably intense scene, one which virtually wordlessly sets the terms of “Redland’”s core investigation into the rash physicality of this family’s despair. In a narrative that’s constantly folding in on itself and collapsing fantasy into reality, Norton goes on to intertwine Mary-Ann’s secret, lustful, agonized longing for the absent Charlie (Toben Seymour) with her family’s increasingly dire spiral into starvation. In taking Charlie along on a hunting trek, Mary-Ann’s father forces both crises of hunger to a tipping point of near-mythical proportions.
Shot seemingly entirely with natural and candle light (sometimes, not enough of either to illuminate the actors — a couple scenes play out in a barely legible muddle of dark grain), almost every image in “Redland” has apparently been processed in some way to look old. Some images are increasingly blurred out from the focal point, as if shot with a pinhole camera; others are psychedelic in their use of color and long dissolves. Norton’s experimentation can be extremely challenging to a viewer looking for narrative clarity, but it mostly works as a formal expression of tone and feeling. Personally, I can roll with Redland’s visual abstraction; I have less tolerance for its intermittent, hokey hippie-poetic narration. That first scene is stunning for what it tells us without words, but too much of the spoken language in “Redland” adds little to the experience, other than confirmation that the filmmaker likes Terrence Malick. Somewhere between the swooning backwoods romance and the contemplation of pagan spirituality in nature, we might have figured that out regardless.
“Modus Operandi” is an entire film about the kinds of films that its maker likes, but Frankie Latina pulls it off with a freshness and charm that’s unquestionably invigorating. A “Pulp Fiction”-like ode to spy and hitman schlock, “Operandi” was shot with mod panache entirely on Super8 (as Latina would put it, incorrectly, at the film’s Q & A, “the same film stock they shot the Kennedy assassination on”) over four years in Milwaukee, with expanded cameos from “American Movie’”s Mark Borchardt and Robert Rodriguez regular Danny Trejo, and the majority of the rest of the cast culled from Craig’s List. The result is a grand feat of DIY exploitation that would seem to render the long-rumored, apparently soon-to-shoot Rodriguez/Trejo collaboration “Machete” virtually unnecessary.
“Modus Operandi’”s plot is both unnecessarily complicated and virtually irrelevant. Randy Russell, from “American Job,” plays Stanley Cashay, an undercover operative dragged out of drunken retirement by the CIA to rescue two missing suitcases, both of which contain videotaped smut that could embarrass a smarmy candidate for president. Cashay essentially outsources the job, and over the course of the film the suitcases change hands innumerable times, passing through the opulent, bikini-girl-clogged lairs populated by spies and crooks with names like Black Licorice and Marcello Maserati.
As the action moves back and forth from Milwaukee to Siberia (probably also shot in Milwaukee) to Japan (according to the credits, actually shot in Japan), the narrative itself becomes completely incoherent. Still, it looks great, and for the full 70 minute running time, the novelty sustains, hitting its peak with the appearance of a quipping Danny Trejo (“Adios, gringo,” he cracks after installing a lit stick of dynamite in the vacancy left by a bad guy’s gouged eyeball). “Modus Operandi” is what “Grindhouse” should have been — maybe, would have been — if freed from ego and studio budget bloat. It may not be the best film at CineVegas, but it’s got to be one of the great underground discoveries of the year.