Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Over the Lips and Down the Cape: Indie Film Making and a Regime of Counterfeit Communists

Whoops, I think this might
be the wrong cape...
I don't believe in fate; I believe in the Internet.  So when some random dude messaged me on Twitter asking me to review some micro-budget indie film, I felt a strange compulsion to follow that path no matter where it might lead.  I was slightly relieved that the whole thing didn't turn out to be some kind of clandestine campaign to proliferate some variety of softcore amateur porn in a bid to "make it big" as they say in the industry.  While the democratization of information enabled by the digital age is (mostly) a marvel to behold, I think the world has more than its fair share of pasty white middle-aged meatbags from the basement of some old farmhouse in Iowa sharing their particular brand of love with webcam quality images etched forever onto the retinas and brains of a (mostly) unsuspecting audience.

So, of course, my first instinct--as is the case with most people--was to completely abandon my beliefs at the first sign of even the slightest inconvenience. I replied with an enthusiastically noncommittal answer of course, the Twitter equivalent of a one-night stand, a linguistic "quickie" like the ones we give to homeless people begging for change or the apologies celebrities give the rest of us. I wouldn't qualify myself as an asshole of epic proportions, but it definitely did occur to me to agree to watch this budding young director's work and then fucking ignore him for the rest of my natural life. I guess I would say I'm more of an asshole of modest aspirations.

So how was it that I overcame my apathy and general disregard for the hopes and dreams of my fellow man and found myself sitting alone in my basement crouched over my laptop watching the cinematic debut of Shane Butler, an aspiring director/writer/editor who (apparently) shamelessly propositions young, unsuspecting, attractive, incredibly intelligent, well-hung, boy-next-door type Twitter users to spread the word about his movie for nefarious purposes I can only begin to fathom?

The answer is as complex as it is entertaining (or as entertaining as it can be without hardcore nudity and gratuitous violence), and my trepidations and epiphanies surrounding the experience of delving into a truly indie scene are of consequence in framing my assessment of Butler's wares.  His film, DOWN THE CAPE, was my first foray into the world of truly independent film making, and my words of wisdom tend to be more like a waterfall than a gentle rain. Buried in here is a film review, but like anything worthwhile, it takes fucking effort to get to, so step into the proverbial barrel, grab hold of the nearest dick, and hang on for dear life, because you're about to go over the falls, baby.

According to its IMDB page (so you know that shit is 2 legit 2 quit) DOWN THE CAPE is summed up thusly:

"After a year in college, a group of high school friends reunite for a weekend of partying."

This description was one of the reasons I was initially turned off from forcing myself to watch this thing; it seemed like exactly the kind of film I would have been inclined to make ten years ago when I still had a penchant for film making, and even managed to scrape together the pilot of a TV show with some fellow creatives and got it shown on a local TV station. Almost immediately, I was positive that Butler had either written or directed DOWN THE CAPE within the same time period of his own life, which smacked of a certain self-indulgence with just a hint of rosemary. You take it home, throw it in a pot, add some broth, a potato.  Baby, you got yourself a stew going.

What one character in the movie said of Tequila seemed woefully applicable in this case; it did, indeed, seem like "bad decision in a bottle."  But then it occurred to me that big studio films don't need another deranged madman shouting into the darkness about their merits or lack thereof; they had entire armies of drones dedicated to just that purpose and with a much large budget. Why not let my ineffectiveness as a blogger be put to work for the smaller films that could actually use the spreading of words to help get their respective balls rolling and associated shafts thrusting?

Wasn't DOWN THE CAPE and other indie films like it what film making is all about? I mean, here was a bunch of nobodies doing it because they truly want to make films (and probably eventually a mint). Butler and his ilk were clearly fucking hungry and chomping at the bit. The last, best hope for the future of film was to give these kids the world to chow down on; they'll either choke or take a bite out of that bitch. You never know when you're going to come across the next Scorsese or Spielberg or Tarantino, and I'm not taking any chances.

There were also selfish reasons: expanding my own thinking, exploring different avenues, taking a step outside of my comfort zone, yadda, yadda, yadda.  I also considered the fact that this review might be seen as an attempt to gain some kind of street cred on the indie film review circuit, like an actor wanting to do stage work to show that they've still got "it." I suppose, as with all all things, I will have to be judged on the level of my earnestness within this specific context.
In all fairness, there's never really a good
time to stop sniffing glue.

But before I set out on this verbose journey of self-discovery, I needed to establish an appropriate frame of reference. (I picked the wrong week to stop sniffing glue.) I couldn't, in all fairness, evaluate DOWN THE CAPE with the same rubric applied to established film makers with armies of producers, investors, and top shelf drug dealers slinging "tha good shit." The closest to the indie scene that I had honestly gone was CLERKS, which--although since becoming a cult classic and catapulting its director, Kevin Smith, into the big(ger) leagues--establishes at least some kind of bar of excellence for films given life far, far outside the perimeters of any studio system.

I wouldn't argue that DOWN THE CAPE is in any danger of becoming a cult classic, but it does show promise that those involved may indeed have the necessary skills to pay off any outstanding bills, and since this was a "no-budget" endeavour, they might even be left with some surplus. The great thing about truly independent film making such as this is that all of the fat is stripped away and we get a taste of some lean, lean meat. Without crutches like "special effects" or "exotic locations" or "health and safety considerations," storytelling is forced to be distilled down to its purest form. The drawback to sampling an extract so pure is that any impurity in the product is all the more evident.

The premise of the film is requisitely simple: a bunch of friends--Julian (Alex McAullife), Sean (Preston Graveline), and Jamie (Chris Goodwin)--and a few dubious allies plan a little weekend getaway at a summer home owned by Clark's (Josh Coleman's) parents to catch up after parting ways to explore academic pursuits at various different academic institutions. Clark is a douchebag of the highest calibre, hailing from Harvard and all, and the apparent acquaintance of Julien and nemesis of Jamie. While at first the plan was a brotacular weekend of drinking and regaling each other with lo yet more tales of grand adventure and conquest, it becomes more of a couples retreat and Boom! we have ourselves a relationship drama and all the accompanying hijinks. (I smell a sitcom!)

There's nothing world shattering or mind bending here, but the increasingly rapid evolution one is forced to undergo as one transitions from childhood into maturity is a pretty universal and relatable theme. Granted, if your life narrative is anything like mine what with having shipped myself off to university at the tender age of eighteen, then DOWN THE CAPE will probably be slightly more relatable. But the urge to anchor your narrative in some sort of stable past is in integral part of the process of the formation of an identity. I used to be fairly cynical about the seeming tendency towards nostalgia at increasingly younger ages, and while I am still partially of the mindset that nostalgia is a privilege (nay, right) earned usually only through the service of surviving the onslaught of the advancing years, I'm a bit more sympathetic to the urge to begin at an early age. In the turbulent times of our youth, the waters roiling with hormones, new experiences, and various substances both legal and not-so-legal, it's important to have a clear line of sight back to a familiar shore, more as a cognitive compass than anything else.

And it is this theme that lies at the heart of DOWN THE CAPE and helps to anchor it in its own turbulent waters, though it does lose its mooring from time to time. The goal of the main characters at the beginning of the film was basically to recollect: to remember old times from their old life together. The anxieties at play in the film are reflective of the the theme as the primary struggles of all the major characters are in some way the result of conflicting expectations and perceptions of their new, post-high school identities with those of their previous selves.
You definitely picked the wrong
fucking cape.

The primary example of conflicting perceptions and expectations is Jamie. His high school identity in relation to his core social group was the geek (of the brainy variety), though by the beginning of the movie after his first year away from his old life, Jamie has morphed into the stereotypical party animal, exemplified by his (apparent) borderline alcoholism, his attempts to draw others into a series of wild shenanigans, (I swear I'm going to pistol whip the next person who says shenanigans!), and one story in particular involving Regis Philbin and a bunch of naked coeds that was simultaneously entertaining and nightmare-inducing. Kudos to the actor, Chris Goodwin, who was a standout in the cast and helped bring this particular story and the character himself to vivid, ginger life. (One of my only remaining questions at the end of the the film involved matching drapes and carpets...)

In a revealing scene near the end of the movie, Jamie breaks down and tells Julian and Sean that his whole persona of drunken escapades and orgies of sex and booze (the combination thereof being especially "choice") was a creation to fuel their expectations.  He had always entertained them with his stories, and in an attempt to maintain his social standing, he had written himself into a real-life story with the unintended consequence of severe anxiety and the accompanying medication. In this way he serves as a sort of Rosetta Stone to help decipher much of the rest of the film.

Sean has yet to reveal to his two best friends (or anyone else) that he is gay and plays to their expectations of heterosexuality, even turning Judas on his boyfriend, Caleb (Topher Hansson), when pressed as to the nature of their relationship. At one point he even literally hides Caleb in the closet to avoid confronting the issue. There is some catharsis near the end when Caleb finally reveals his sexuality at least to Julian, though the way it was handled I feel it lacked the impact it could have had and wasn't as satisfying as it could have been (Jesus, now I'm starting to sound like my wife... no, wait...).

Of the three main friends, Julian's narrative seemed to be the weakest link in the chain as his conflict seemed to be driven by the "emotional affair" he had engaged in and the tension it had created with his still-in-high-school girlfriend, Casey (Melanie Roth). Though still in keeping with theme of conflicting sets of expectations as Julian has begun his post-secondary metamorphosis while Casey is still firmly and snugly nestled in her high school cocoon, their conflict didn't seem to have any real weight behind it. Perhaps it was because Julian ended up being my least favourite character, what with his strangely borderline puritanical views on both sex and intoxication, or perhaps it's my continuing inability to grasp how an emotional entanglement might be viewed as somehow on par or worse than a physical one. Whatever the reason, I didn't feel the emotional stakes with Julian and Casey's relationship.    

The other prime example of this conflict between dueling sets of perceptions and expectations is Charlotte (India Pearl), Clark's on-again off-again girlfriend, whose conflict quite effectively mirrors Jamie's. When she and the old Clarkster headed off to university, they decided that they would "take a break" (fucking Ross...) to use the parlance of our times. During this period, Charlotte actually did make the transition from the demure girl in bio class to full-fledged party goddess, fully succeeding in the transition that Jamie had so desperately tried to convince everyone (and, perhaps, in so doing, himself) that he had undergone. Charlotte straddles the line with an identity crisis of her own, playing the bitch while actually struggling to strike some sort of balance between her academic and social careers (and also hoarding all of the condoms, for some reason).  

Caught in a sort-of love triangle with Clark and Jamie, Charlotte eventually breaks down and confides in Casey that as a result of the pressure she felt to excel academically to live up to the expectations of others that she is now on prozac. In one of perhaps the most depressingly realistic narrative threads of DOWN THE CAPE, Charlotte ends up nurturing an obviously self-destructive yet mutually addictive relationship with Clark, the resident asshole, while leaving the "nice guy" Jamie behind on a beech to ponder his persistent virginity. Though wanting to "believe in a fucking fairy tale," Charlotte succumbs to the bad habit that has seen the destruction of so many before her. It also doesn't hurt that Pearl was another standout in the cast and delivered perhaps the most nuanced and multifaceted performance of the film.

DOWN THE CAPE ended up being a great deal more enjoyable than I had anticipated a random indie flick flung at me from the far corners of the Internet would have been. Butler has put forth an honest effort in film making, and the hits far outweigh the misses in this case. He's obviously a fan of film (yeah, I noticed the Tarantino-style trunk shot, you sly bastard), and though it falters in a few places, this movie is a great first effort demonstrating a lot of promise in regards to dialogue and character as well as cinematography. All in all, it was a pretty great way to bust my indie film cherry. If this film does indeed mark the effort of "friends who tried so hard to be legends," then I say to Butler and his crew, full steam a-fucking-head.




Post a Comment