August 2007

The Bet

Poster for The Bet The Bet opens with a shot of a dingy hallway in a run down apartment block. A door opens and a woman (Courtney Gardner-Stavros) – bound and gagged – is dumped in the hallway. The opposite door opens and she is dragged inside.

And so it goes on, with the woman being passed between the two men (Lou Diamond and Walt Turner), each of whom keeps her for exactly one minute.

The Bet is based on a short story, written by Michael Dunn, that was published in Thirteen, a UK horror magazine. That story, in turn, was based on a recurring nightmare that Dunn’s now wife had as a teenager. And the film retains a dream-like logic throughout – dark, surreal and very open to interpretation.

It’s this openness that gives the film much of its strength as the nature of the game between the two men is slowly revealed, and the personalities of the characters gradually emerge, gradually drawing you further and further into their world.

The acting here is superb throughout and the three characters manage to make a very simple premise utterly engrossing. This is doubly impressive once you consider how little is said.

The cinematography deserves a mention here for adding hugely to downbeat and dirty atmosphere of the experience, as does Michael Dunn’s eye for a striking shot, which comes together visually to tell us almost as much about the characters as the actors do.

Overall, this is a well paced, intelligent and genuinely disturbing film that trusts its audience to be capable of understanding – or interpreting - what is being shown without feeling the need to spoon-feed every plot point to the audience. As such it’s a film that improves with each viewing.

But what really sets The Bet apart is the atmosphere of grimy desperation that pervades the entire film – not just for the woman, but also for the two men. These are people who really have reached the end of the line and have no way out, as is powerfully underlined with the film’s closing scene.

The Creek

The Creek The Creek opens with seven friends partying at a remote cabin in the woods when one of their number – Billy (Tim Jesiolowski) – is killed by an unseen attacker.

We then jump forward five years and the remaining friends have grown older and grown apart. But now, as the fifth anniversary of Billy’s death approaches, each of the six friends sees his ghost. Not sure why they’ve seen a ghost and, individually, not entirely convinced that they have seen a ghost, the friends start to seek each other out and, between them, they decide that they should return to the place where Billy died.

And it’s here, in the woods, at night, that they begin to discuss what happened all those years ago. Billy’s murder, it turns out, was recorded by the police as an accident but not everyone is convinced. And, as all of the old tensions and animosities start to emerge, the inevitable question gets asked: If Billy was murdered, who was responsible?

While watching this The Creek, I found it very easy to forget that it is an independent film. Much of it is filmed outdoors and at night, which is always difficult, but writer/director Erik Soulliard’s visual sense combined Jason Contino’s superb cinematography really does lend a genuinely creepy atmosphere to the events.

While the acting is a bit variable in places, it is never less than competent and there are a couple of stand-out performances, most consistently from Kathryn Merry. And, as Billy’s ghost watches his former friends speculate about what may or may not have happened five years previously, and increasingly fall out with each other, the film builds a real sense of paranoia.

This continues until about the one hour mark at which point the truth is revealed and from this point on the film really racks up the tension - so much so that it really does keep you on the edge of your seat.

With very impressive production values and a strong story, The Creek is genuinely gripping from start to finish. This is an excellent film from start to finish and well worth tracking down.

My American Uncle

My American Uncle My American Uncle is a real cinematic oddity combining documentary and drama to fashion something wholly unique. The film attempts to discuss the behaviourist survival theories of Henri Laborit – who takes on the role of the narrator – and achieves this with a uniquely academic approach.

The film is structured almost as a series of lectures, each starting with an experiment and concluding with a discussion of the results. The experiments, however, are all fictional, telling the interlinked stories of three different people.

Jean Le Gall (Roger Pierre) was born on a small island off the coast of Brittany. Academically gifted, and with a passion for reading, he leaves home to work in public radio and quickly climbs the career ladder while attempting to pursue his political and literary ambitions.

Janine Garnier (Nicole Garcia) was born to a very politically active father who is dismayed at her aspiration to be an actress. Thwarted by her parents, she too leaves home and – following a lucky break – lands the lead role in a play that turns out to be much more successful than anticipated. As the play’s run comes to an end, she meets Jean and his wife and the two of them embark on an affair…

René Ragueneau (Gerard Depardieu) grew up on a family farm which is hopelessly out of date in its methods and struggling to stay afloat. Frustrated at his father’s unwillingness to change, René also leaves home and moves to the city where he lands an office job in a textile firm. Conscientious and hard-working, his career progresses steadily until a merger looms…

Given my initial remarks about the structure and ambition of the film, it is worth pointing out that this is a narrative film and, if the intellectual analysis was removed, we would still have a very solid drama. The characters are all wholly believable and largely sympathetic and, as the plot progresses, they react in a manner that is both consistent and familiar to all of us.

What makes this film really fascinating, though, is the way in which Laborit demonstrates that the behaviour of the characters is also clearly reflected in the fight or flight responses of rats in a cage.

This brings us to the theme of the film, which is that our conscious behaviour only makes up a very small part of our actions. Most of what we do is governed, subconsciously, by the more primitive parts of our brain which function almost identically as the same parts of the brain in animals.

But this is no piece of grim determinism. As Laborit points out, in order to travel to the moon we must first understand gravity. Understanding gravity doesn’t free us from it, but it does allow us to utilise it.

Heavily narrated, especially at the start of the film, My American Uncle takes a while to get going. But its unique combination of a very human script, solid performances and some fascinating insights into human behaviour make this a very rewarding film indeed.

Xperimental Eros

Xperimental Eros Anthology films are often a mixed bag. Whatever the theme, some of the films in the collection will, inevitably, be better than others and – in this case – the question of whether the hits outnumber the misses really will come down to how you feel about both experimental films and pornography.

The first film in the collection is King of Porn, is a sympathetic – and often amusing - portrait of Ralph Whittington, government worker, devoted father, ex-husband, man of leisure and collector of pornography. The film allows him to speak for himself as he shows off his stash – which has pretty much taken over his house – of over 400 videos, thousands of magazines and a horde of articles on the subject. Whittington comes off rather well in this film. Rather geeky, obviously, but fundamentally no worse than anyone else feeding an obsession with collecting pop-cultural ephemera.

Then we have two films (not sequentially) which I’m going to deal with together because, for me, Blue Movie and Removed highlight the difficulty that many filmmakers face when trying to bring an art-house or experimental sensibility to pornography. Both films take vintage porn – stag films, in the case of Blue Movie, and a piece of 70s Euro-smut in the case the case of Removed – and then rework it, over and over again, until the pornographic elements are thoroughly obscured.

The problem that both films run into is that porn and erotica are not the same and by simply removing or concealing the pornographic, we are left with a pair of films that are neither pornographic nor erotic. And, I have to admit, that I was left wondering what the point was.

I almost included The Colour of Love with the above two films, but this one is distinguished by some genuinely disturbing imagery buried under all of the reworking. The film – heavily reworked again – is dedicated to Doris Wishman and revolves around two women having bloody sex with a dead man. It’s an interesting film and one that could have been very powerful if the footage hadn’t been quite so (deliberately) degraded.

Similarly, Downs are Feminine attempts to rework sexual images. This time around, the approach is to use cut-out animation of pornographic photos against a tacky 1970s background. It all drifts along in a dreamy, vaguely surreal fashion and – visually – there are some good ideas in there. But, ultimately, it really isn’t very clear what the film makers are trying to say, if anything.

The snappily titled The Influence of Ocular Light Perception on Metabolism in Man and Animal is a lot more effective. The film is built from a collection of seemingly random images, some of which are sexual and others more innocuous, thrown at the screen in rapid succession and it’s the rapid juxtaposition of the images that imbues the more mundane images with an often unexpected sexuality.

On a more cheerful note is Sneakin’ and Peekin’, which comes to us from 1976 and shows the results of two documentary film makers sneaking into a nudist camp. The film very successfully evokes the innocent sexuality of the George Harrison Marks’ early films.

Sexjunkie, the penultimate film in the anthology is by far the strongest. Both erotic and disturbing, this film takes the form of a video confessional of a nymphomaniac and her obsession with sex – not as love but as a physical craving.

The final film in the collection is Pacifier, an adolescent ode to porn. The premise is that when he was 13 Oscar Perez wrote a couple of stories for Penthouse Forum. Then, unable to find where to send them, he forgot about them. Years later when he rediscovered his stories, he decided to turn them into films.

While the script for Pacifier supposedly taken directly from the letter, the film is very much played for laughs and very effectively captures a 13 year old’s understanding of – and fantasies about – adult sex. As well as being very funny, this film more than any of the others, asks the audience to consider who consumes porn and why.

Overall, I found Xperimental Eros to be a very mixed collection and I think that, more than anything, this reflects the mixed state of art-house erotica. As such, it’s an interesting, rather than consistently enjoyable collection, but one that is worth seeing if you are both reasonably open minded and interested in experimental films.