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.