Monday, August 17, 2009

The Kids Aren't Alright


by Brandon Colvin

Loren Cass begins in darkness. White noise feedback and discordant guitar jangles zig-zag around one another over a black screen. Sound preceding image, sound defining image. The visual of a desolate highway at night, speckled with fluorescents and neons from streetlamps and signs. Cars zoom by intermittently. A voiceover begins and trails off, “Back in 1997 . . . .” This is the only context. A mournful solo trumpet replaces the dissonant guitars. The film’s three main characters are then introduced in a succession of still, quiet images, moving from disparity to coalescence – just as the feedback mellows into the brass melody – when their banal paths cross.

Cale, played by writer/director/editor/producer Chris Fuller, is a young mechanic, first shown driving his car on a pale, grey morning. Jason (Travis Maynard) is his skinheaded, self-destructive, punk-rock pal who sleeps in a room with newspaper-covered walls and whose father, like most adults in Loren Cass, is practically a zombie, seen passed out in front of a static-ridden television screen. Cale picks Jason up at the curb, just like he does everyday. They go to work at the body shop. Nicole (Kayla Tabish) rises from bed and gets dressed. A young black man stirs in her sheets – one of many men to do so throughout the film, including Cale. Nicole gets in her car, leaving her equally zonked out parents sitting frozen in the living room. On the road, Nicole’s car pulls up behind Cale’s. The three characters are close but separated, isolated. Then, they simply drive off, drifting back into their unspoken, nebulous angst and the existential tension hovering over their hometown of St. Petersburg, Florida, a city recovering in the wake of the 1996 race riots.


These initial minutes are Loren Cass in microcosm. Scenes of boredom, disconnection, and poetic loneliness linked sonically, ranging from the violently cacophonous, to the cryptically lyrical, to the emptily quiet. Throughout the film, the multi-talented Fuller tackles every element with remarkable boldness, unafraid of silence, of experimentation, and his aural design reflects this. Shot over a period of eight years and written by Fuller at the tender age of 15, Loren Cass demonstrates an unusually mature and confident handling of perhaps the most neglected aspect of filmmaking – the soundtrack. Swirling around his emotionally unmoored characters and their listless – though often incredibly vicious – interactions, Fuller crafts a contrapuntal blend of meandering instrumental music, punk riffs, audio recordings of political activists, stream-of-consciousness voiceovers, radio clips, Charles Bukowski reading from “The Last Days of the Suicide Kid,” ambient industrial hums, and – most significantly – quietude, all serving the purpose of redefining and reinterpreting atmosphere and mood, of creating new, unexpected sensual linkages that imbue Loren Cass with a energy and freshness.

The film’s brilliance does not end with its sonic mastery. Fuller and cinematographer William Garcia utilize a wide array of effective visual techniques, gleaned from all corners of cinematic language. Amidst the dominant medium/wide long-takes and motionless shots are graceful tracks and pans, floating handheld movements, slow-motion sequences, jump-cuts, fragmentary close-ups, and the repeated use of a black screen without image, but with audio, as in the opening seconds, demonstrating that the filmmakers not only know what to show, but also what not to show. The inter-cutting of footage from Budd Dwyer’s infamously televised suicide adds yet another facet to Loren Cass’ use of mixed-media (as with its sound design) and adds a harsh, shocking dose of documentary reality to the film’s already diverse cinematic tools, emphasizing the brutality that surrounds the movie’s chaotic gang fights and pervasive, desperate aggression.


One of the most emblematic sequences from Loren Cass consists of a brief series of shots depicting the architecture of the characters’ school. Immaculately framed and edited together with a contemplative rhythm, the still shots are reminiscent of Yasujiro Ozu’s famous transitions – usually a short series of immobile frames depicting precisely arranged interiors and exteriors, noteworthy for their silence, simplicity, and tonal power. In Loren Cass, this sequence imparts a sense of disused decrepitude and an almost metaphysical feeling of absence: rusted, fading signs; sickly-colored lockers; empty, dark hallways; a staircase bathed in a grim blue hue; a public restroom with a single stall in use. The succession of images generates a sensation of ethereal abandonment, and is, to a certain extent, downright creepy, particularly when matched with the faint buzz that haunts the soundtrack throughout, subtly shifting timbre from shot to shot. For characters living in a “dirty, dirty town by a dirty, dirty sea,” who have “stopped dreaming,” as the un-attributed voiceover states, the mood is perfect. From this single sequence one might agree with another voiceover utterance coming later in the film: “The kids are all dead.”

And if the kids aren’t all dead, they’re certainly trying to get that way. Suicide looms over Loren Cass like a spectral buzzard, a back-of-the-mind thought just waiting for a weak moment. The self-destructive tendencies that manifest themselves in the characters result from the psychologically alchemical process of transforming passion into anger into disaffection into apathy into nihilistic submission. Everyone in Loren Cass seems on the cusp of abyss-leaping; as the mysterious voiceover says, “Kill me, please, before I have to.” For a film so overflowing with despair, however, Loren Cass is full of youth, courage, intensity, and confidence – a rarity, particularly for a feature-length debut. One might say that at its best moments it nears the cinematic poetry of Bresson’s The Devil, Probably (1977) or Linklater’s Slacker (1991), which is inspiring even amidst the “ugly things” the film celebrates. With its ingenious sound design and mastery of a deep visual repertoire, Loren Cass suggests that Chris Fuller has an incredibly bright future in filmmaking ahead of him – and that’s certainly something to find hope in.

A

7 comments:

James Hansen said...

This is wonderfully written review, Brandon. For a movie like this that is so hard to describe, you really did a nice job. I guess I've never talked to you about him before, but I wonder what you think of the comparisons by most critics to Harmony Korine, especially GUMMO. Seems to me tradition may be slightly the same, but they are operating under very different principles.

Anyways, I wasn't totally sure what I thought about LC at first, but it has stuck with me, as I expected it might. Its pretty dynamic in a lot of ways.

Brandon Colvin said...

Thanks, James!

As far as Korine comparisons go, I would say that Fuller is a little less-interested in the poetic sideshow. GUMMO always seemed like a parade of unreal freaks rather than living, breathing people. I think the characters in LOREN CASS are a bit more rooted in everyday boredom, etc. They don't wear rabbit ears.

However, the basic set-up (a community of youths coping in the wake of a disaster) is similar and the willingness to shock is certainly there as well. I think both Korine and Fuller are just brash dudes.

Tony said...

After I saw the movie, the inclusion of the Dwyer footage was really problematic for me as I couldn't quite wrap my head around why exactly this very famous, out of context public suicide could possibly have anything to say about the situation in which these kids found themselves in, in that it had a story all its own, completely unrelated.

But I think this review helped me through that by the simple use of the word "documentary".

Even outside of the use of archival footage there were times where I felt what was on screen was actually happening. I don't know what you would call a guy bloodying his hands punching a trash can for a fiction film. If it is staged is it less than real, even if it has real consequences? Is that documentary? I mean, I have to assume a certain amount of aggression exists within a person capable of "acting" in a scene like that one.

The shocking doses of "documentary reality" stand as perfect compliments to the less than acted moments of the scripted or planned aspects of the movie. They also work to make the experimental touches (spontaneous combustion, car accident, etc.,)feel rooted in something tangible. When that character is on fire, I know he's not on fire, but I know he wants to be, just like he wanted to feel pain when he was punching those trash cans and just like Mr. Dwyer wanted to die.

James Hansen said...

Brandon- Yeah, I definitely agree on Korine. I think he's an interesting filmmaker, but I rarely connect with what he's doing. It seems so much more intrusive and off-putting than just finding those moments. Of course, I don't mean that across the board - he has some really great scenes - but I've never bought it the same was Van Sant/Herzog/Waters have.

The most interesting direct scene parallel is probably the fighting the chair/beating the trash can. Looking at those two (and how differently they work) you can really see the difference.

Tony- I've been at a documentary conference all week and my head is spinning with ideas about doc, but I've had so much theory thrown at me this week that I'll pass over your comments for now. A crazy theory laden response would be fun, but I think I'll skip it. :-) It is insightful though to think about it how you (and Brandon) mention it. I wasn't sure if I thought it all worked or not after we saw it, but now I'm pretty sure it nails it.

Brandon Colvin said...

Thanks for the great comment, Tony! It makes me glad to see that you've come around to the film a little more. I totally understand why the Dwyer footage is off-putting, but I think it is a creative leap that lands perfectly.

James: I actually do like GUMMO, and I love JULIEN DONKEY-BOY. There is a certain emotionalism that pervades Korine's weirdness, but it feels like meandering exploitation a little too often to be as great as Herzog says.

Also, I hope your conference went well. I think LOREN CASS would make a great subject for an interesting essay on doc theory. Considering that you also had doubts about the Dwyer footage, it seems the true success of LOREN CASS might be the way it sticks with you and feels more and more appropriate the more you think about it.

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