The Black Hole of the Camera

Me And You and Memento and Fargo

 

Dance Party, USA

I’ve already written about Aaron Katz’s terrific second feature, Quiet City (2007) previously, but I finally had a chance to catch up with his debut effort, Dance Party, USA (2006). Both films have been released recently on DVD in a two-disc set from indie distributor, Benten Films, confirming my belief that the most intriguing films out there aren’t necessarily playing at the local multiplex.

The two films – Quiet City and Dance Party, USA – are remarkably different in tone. Although Quiet City is a potentially uplifting love story, Dance Party, USA is an incredibly dark and disturbing portrait of teenage relationships. Dance Party, USA begins with the aftermath of a beer bash, as Jessica walks through a house the next morning, which is followed by large credits set against patriotic red, white, and blue backgrounds. Following moving car shots of Portland, two teenagers converse while riding on light rail transit. Gus (Cole Pennsinger) tells his friend Bill (Ryan White) a crude misogynous story about one of his sexual escapades, but also reveals that the girl, named Kate, is only fourteen. This freaks out Bill, who dismisses the story as bullshit. The conversation switches to the upcoming Fourth of July party. When Bill asks Gus about his ex-girlfriend Christie and it becomes apparent that he’s interested in her, Gus encourages Bill to have sex with her.

Meanwhile, as they walk in an industrial section of town, Christie (Sarah Bing) discusses Gus with her friend Jessica (Anna Cavan), who hasn’t had much luck lately on the romantic front. Christie confides her ambivalent and conflicted feelings about the relationship with Gus. As rap music plays, the camera moves through the party, before settling on a phallic beer bottle resting on Gus’s crotch, as he converses with Bill, who’s waiting for Christie to show up. It takes a matter of minutes for Gus to get a bored female party-goer into bed. Her post-coital dissatisfaction is obvious not only from her body language, but from the brick pillar that divides the frame in two, as she lies in bed, while Gus gets dressed.

A guy hits on Jessica at the party with a promise of killer weed, but she’s not interested, especially once she figures out that he’s the older brother of someone she knew in fourth grade. Katz has a great ear for naturalistic dialogue:

GUS: Where you been?
GUY: I’ve been all over. I was driving all over the place.
GUS: Cool.
GUY: You ever been in Nebraska?
GUS: No.
GUY: Well, you know how like when you think of Nebraska, you can’t really think of anything that’s there?
GUS: Yeah.
GUY: Well, there’s actually a lot of stuff there.
GUS: That’s pretty cool. So what are you doing here?
GUY: I don’t know. I guess . . . I don’t really know what I’m doing, and I ran out of money, and I’m back. I had this job in Texas, but . . . fuck . . . I didn’t want to stay there.

What’s also interesting in this scene is Gus’s sustained reaction to this drunken guy. He’s become so inured to such conversations that the fissures in his concentration are only revealed in the darting movements of his eyes.

A huge fireworks display is depicted without the accompanying explosions, creating a disjunction between sound and image. There’s another shot later on of Jessica playing a record with head phones on, which creates a similar effect. It’s the equivalent of the gaps that exist in the conversations between these young kids – almost as if most of the meaning of what’s transpiring is occurring entirely in the silent spaces between their words rather than in the words themselves. In a sense, even more so than Quiet City, Dance Party, USA is nearly all subtext, as if these kids’ whole world – adolescence itself – is somehow rendered as a completely impenetrable experience, even to those who are experiencing it.

Gus meets Jessica outside the party, as she sits there bored and brooding while waiting for Christie, who has taken up with Bill. Following the stiff formal introduction of these two “friends of a friend” – who know each other only indirectly, but nevertheless intimately – Gus tries to explain his bad reputation. Jessica, however, beats him to the punch by prematurely divulging that she’s not going to sleep with him and declaring that she thinks he’s an asshole. Gus tries to start over again, and in doing so, ends up making a shocking personal revelation regarding the fourteen-year-old girl.

It’s the same story he’s told Bill earlier, but this time Gus actually confesses the truth about what really happened that night – it’s not a pretty picture. “I do bad things a lot of times,” he tells her, “but I’m not a bad person.” Throughout his long and painful monologue, Jessica, bathed in warm golden back light, doesn’t really say anything. Afterwards she ignites a couple of sparklers, which we watch in close-up until they fizzle out. Finally, she asks, “Do you want to go somewhere?” The two drive through downtown Portland at night. The shots of city – the lights emit a reddish cast as if we’ve suddenly entered the underworld, followed by more fluorescent blues – manage to provide the intrusions of reality into this otherwise encapsulated teenage world. The sequence culminates in a scene where Jessica simply asks Gus whether he’s cold, before she silently drops him off at his house.

Gus manages to track down the victim of his story, Kate. Gus has earlier told Jessica how the passage of time had nearly wiped the incident out of his memory, but he’s clearly trying to gauge what impact it has had on the younger teen. When Gus turns up at her door, Kate doesn’t appear to recognize him. She asks, “Have we met before?” He responds, “Kind of. I mean, we met at a party. Like a year ago.” A bit unsure what to do, she invites him inside to watch TV and drink coke. Gus queries her about having a boyfriend as well as the length of the relationship. He asks casually, “What happened with that?” Kate, however, is not very forthcoming. After a long pause, Gus asks, “So has anything like really bad ever happened to you?” She answers, “Like what?” Kate merely shrugs and asks him the same question, suggesting that she has already repressed the whole incident (at what future psychological cost?), and, consequently, Gus doesn’t bring it up.

As Gus and Bill sit on the couch drinking beers, Bill invites Gus to join him and Christie at the amusement park later on. He also refers to Jessica as a bitch. Gus complains about women always wanting him to stimulate them physically, when, as he puts it, “I’m like, suck my dick. I just want you to suck my dick.” He also finds the word “slut” to be a turn on, and refers to photography and painting and studying insects as “fag shit.” Gus, however, suddenly asks, Why not?” He then confesses that he really likes Jessica, not for her body, but for herself. Bill, however, offers Gus advice, “If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s not to feel bad about anything.” He continues, “Don’t do it to yourself.” Gus responds, “Thanks.” As hardcore music continues to play in the background, Gus asks Bill for a hug, but it clearly makes Bill feel uncomfortable.

Gus and Jessica later meet up at the amusement park, and decide to get their picture taken together in a photo booth. After they make goofy faces and run out of money, the two turn and kiss twice before they leave the booth, and the film abruptly ends.

Dance Party, USA captures the emotional turbulence of what it feels like to be a teenager. In particular, it’s about the pressures of being male with its exaggerated emphasis on getting drunk, sexual conquest, and subservience to peer-group pressures. Although Dance Party, USA, in contrast to Quiet City, stays much closer to the written script, Katz has a knack for obtaining incredibly naturalistic performances that actually have real depth. He also has an economical way of staging scenes by employing long takes and minimal cutting that caters to the performers. Aaron Katz is clearly at the forefront of filmmakers associated with mumblecore.

I’m not convinced that Dance Party, USA deserves to be seen as “a kind of correction to Larry Clark’s KIDS,” as Karina Longworth has written, or that the film is “a story of bad behavior leading to redemption.” If so, I don’t understand the scene toward the end between Gus and Bill, or even the previous one with Kate. I think Gus definitely has been affected by his interaction with Jessica. At least he can admit his feelings for her beyond lust for her physical body, but confession alone is rarely enough to change a person’s behavior. To his credit, Katz is careful to leave this as an open-ended question, which is part of the authenticity and honesty of the film. Dance Party, USA remains a sobering portrait of a rather confused male teenager, who — at least until now — has used his good looks as a weapon against young women.

Posted 17 February, 2008

sex, lies, and videotape

 

The success of films such as Stranger Than Paradise, She’s Gotta Have It, Working Girls, and River’s Edge solidified the position of American independent film within the marketplace in the1980s, but Steven Soderbergh’s sex, lies, and videotape raised the stakes considerably by grossing nearly $25 million domestically – ten times what Jarmusch’s film had done only half a decade before. At the1989 Sundance Film Festival where sex, lies, and videotape debuted, the film became an overnight sensation, winning the coveted Audience Award and selling domestic theatrical rights to Miramax for nearly the sum of its $1.2 million budget. Sex, lies, and videotape went on to win the Palme d’Or at Cannes, bolstering its reputation on an international level. The film did exceptionally well in virtually every market, eventually grossing nearly $100 million worldwide, thereby convincing, in Filmmaker’s words, “a legion of cell-phone toting Hollywood types that there was gold to be had in the hills of Utah.”

Even the twenty-six-year-old Soderbergh seemed to have been caught off-guard by the velocity of media attention his film managed to generate. He had actually pre-sold the domestic and foreign video rights in order to finance the film – a fairly common method of financing for low-budget pictures. The decision probably cost Soderbergh a huge chunk of the profits, but this only underscores the fact that independently produced films are often no more than entry tickets into the big lottery of commercial distribution. On one level, sex, lies, and videotape might seem to be an unlikely winning stub. The film has a distinctly Southern regional flavor. The credits indicate that it was shot on location in Soderbergh’s hometown of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, but the film hardly utilizes the urban landscape of the city in any significant way. Most of the film takes place within the confines of four indoor locations. When characters at one point walk down a street, all we see is a graffiti-strewn back wall that seems to suggest a “set” rather actual location. On top of this, sex, lies, and videotape has such a functional visual style that it might easily be mistaken for a filmed play.

Sex, lies, and videotape does have a lot of things going for it, however, especially a top-flight ensemble cast, which features James Spader, Andie MacDowell, Peter Gallagher, and Laura San Giacomo. Even the title itself has a certain catchy-ness that manages to conjure up steamy intrigue. Everyone, it turns out, has a tabloid desire to know about bedroom secrets, especially when there is visual evidence to back them up. John Pierson, whose marketing savvy enabled him to turn many modest, low-budget independent films into commercial successes, explains the hook of the film’s strongest element, namely, its extremely mature and well-written script:

Sex, lies, and videotape caught the popular imagination with its unerring delineation of the moment’s zeitgeist. The veneer of the eighties was cracking; the devastation of AIDS discouraged promiscuous coupling. The film presented a rare portrayal of a sensitive, vulnerable male, along with a beautiful, neurotic wife, a sexpot sister, and a crass, cheating husband. It was serious, thoughtful, funny and it pushed the edge of what was allowable on screen. Early on, Soderbergh admitted a strong autobiographical element, but he soon played this down since the film spoke very directly to its viewers’ own relationships – a kind of yuppie Rorschach test.”

Sex, lies, and videotape tells the simple story of a damaged young man, Graham, who comes to town and impacts a triangle of characters by exposing their hidden secrets. It reads like a Tennessee Williams play transposed to a contemporary setting, with a video camera serving as its main probing device. Sex, lies, and videotape dredges up various kinds of sexual issues: fear of intimacy, marital infidelity, male impotence, sexual frigidity, sexual addiction, voyeurism, oral sex, and masturbation. And lurking behind them all is another favorite Williams’ theme: the damaging effect that mendacity can have on personal realtionships.

Sex, lies, and videotape has a rather straightforward thee-act structure. The first turning point occurs when Ann discovers the sexual nature of Graham’s videotape, which causes her to change her feelings about Graham. The second turning point happens when Ann finds Cynthia’s diamond earring – the incriminating proof that her husband and sister are indeed having an affair – an event that sends her back to Graham. In terms of screen time, the first turning point occurs at 37 minutes, while the second takes place at 67 minutes. Since the film has a running time of 98 minutes, sex, lies, and videotape has a first act of 37 minutes, a very short second act of 30 minutes, and a third act of 31 minutes.

More than anything, sex, lies, and videotape is a character study. Although Ann is the film’s clear protagonist and the story is told through her point of view, the other three characters are more or less given equal weight. Ann, however, is not a typical goal-driven protagonist. She’s having too many problems coping, which is why she is in therapy. Ann has only a vague sense that things are wrong, but it is really Graham who triggers the events in the film. Graham, however, turns out to be just as lost and confused as Ann. In fact, the four characters in the script can be broken down into pairs: Ann and Graham – both fragile souls in search of spiritual fulfillment – and John and Cynthia, who have opted for the joys of carnal pleasure. The strength of the very tight and economical script derives from having these characters collide in various intimate and explicit ways.

Ann Millaney, at first glance, would seem to have everything. She’s extremely attractive and enjoys the security of being married to a handsome and wealthy young lawyer named John, but cracks already have begun to appear in her straight, middle-class armor. In her therapy session, she seems extremely evasive, deflecting intimate questions about herself onto such things as the garbage problem. She tells her therapist: “Did you know that the average person produces three pounds of garbage a day?” When the psychiatrist asks what triggered this concern, Ann connects the issue to John. Ann has other neurotic worries besides. In her next therapy session, her concerns switch to the Greenhouse Effect and radon leakage. And previously, she has fixated on the families of airline fatalities.

Despite Ann’s inability or unwillingness to recognize her own personal problems, there are clearly issues in her marriage. For one thing, Ann admits to her therapist that things have cooled sexually between her and John. Even though Ann plays down her interest in sex, the situation bothers her nevertheless. She tells her therapist: “Like I said, it’s not that I miss it, but I’m curious the way things kind of slacked off all of a sudden.” The fact that Ann no longer wants John to touch her has actually been precipitated by John’s lack of interest in her sexually, as well as the fact that she senses his infidelity. Ann’s good looks also have something to do with her problems. Deep down, she resents being John’s trophy wife. Ann wants to be appreciated for who she is rather than for her natural beauty. She complains to Graham that John treats everybody the same: “And so I feel like, what’s different about me, if I’m treated exactly the same as some acquaintance.”

Graham comments about Ann’s good looks when they have lunch together. He says that she’s “got to be the most attractive self-conscious person I’ve ever seen.” Her self-consciousness, he contends, has to do with her recognition that people like John are attracted to her because of her appearance. Even though Graham has not as yet met Cynthia, he also understands intuitively the underlying dynamic between the two sisters. Since Cynthia doesn’t have Ann’s good looks, she uses sex as a weapon to level the playing field between them. Soderbergh’s description of Cynthia in the script hints at this. He writes: “Cynthia bears a slight resemblance to Ann, but is not as overtly attractive. She does, however, have a definite carnal appeal and air of confidence that Ann lacks.” Cynthia gets tremendous pleasure and satisfaction from stealing Ann’s husband away from her. Her erotic desire becomes even more heightened when she screws John in her sister’s own bed. Later on in the film, when Cynthia makes her videotape, she asks Graham whether he thinks she’s pretty? When Graham answers affirmatively, Cynthia asks, “Prettier than Ann?” Graham simply responds, “Different.”

Graham turns out to be the perfect person to bring Ann’s repressed problems to the surface. The two are alike in the sense that Graham certainly doesn’t fit in either. When Graham first shows up at the door, he dispenses with polite formalities and rushes off to use the bathroom. Graham has an unorthodox lifestyle, but it represents a deliberate choice. In the face of life’s complexities, Graham has chosen to drop out and live out of his car. Graham is like an older Holden Caulfield, bristling at the pretentiousness he finds around him. He ridicules his parents, especially his Anglophile mother, whom he calls “a prisoner of public television now.” But Graham has the greatest contempt for liars, whom he claims are the second lowest people in the world – after lawyers. Unlike Ann, Graham has turned his back on straight convention and prefers the simplicity of trying to limit his life to a single key. John smugly tells Graham to get rid of his car when he rents an apartment, and he’ll still have one key.

Graham and John, the old fraternity buddies, have clearly changed in the intervening years. Soderbergh describes John as “dressed very well, sporting real suspenders with his striped pinpoint oxford shirt and cotton suit.” This contrasts with Graham whom he describes as “punk/arty, but neither would do him justice.” John comments brashly on the change, asking: “What do you think the Greeks would make of that outfit you’re wearing.” John is on the fast track to success. He’s a junior partner in a big law firm, with a spacious office overlooking the river. He has been given his first major corporate client, but his arrogance and penchant for risky behavior sets up his later downfall.

John complains that since he’s gotten married, women are all over him. But his revelation to Graham that he had sex with his old girlfriend, Elizabeth, shows that John has always used sex as a weapon of power, especially over other males. John’s behavior with Cynthia also suggests that he is probably a sex addict as well, because he continues to risk losing an important new business client in order to satisfy his incessant sexual desire. Graham comments indirectly about this to Ann, when he tells her: “I mean, honestly, I haven’t known many guys that could think straight with an erection, so I feel I’m way ahead of the game as far as clear-headed goes.” Cynthia’s compulsive sexual behavior parallels John’s. It represents an attempt on her part to overcompensate for her own insecurities. As a result, Cynthia is completely guy-crazy. In her videotape for Graham, she tells a very revealing story about her first encounter with a penis, in which she describes it as a completely separate entity from the person to whom it belongs.

Although John and Cynthia are much less sympathetic characters than Ann and Graham, both Ann and Graham end up revealing hidden sides of themselves. Contrary to her professed lack of interest in sex, Ann eventually admits to being turned on by other men. She has repressed this aspect of herself because it reminds her of Cynthia. Graham also has his own secrets, which only surface when he’s pressed by Ann during her videotape. It turns out that Graham’s professed hatred of liars stems from his own unfaithfulness to his old girlfriend, Elizabeth. He has become frightened by intimacy because of the vulnerability it entails. Rendered impotent by his last relationship, Graham has retreated into the safety of relating to people only from the distance provided by the video camera and TV monitor. Voyeurism has become a convenient defense for Graham until Ann finally forces him to respond to her physically.

Sex, lies, and video exploits the voyeuristic and pornographic associations between sex and the medium of video. Yet, for a film whose hook is obviously sex, sex, lies, and videotape actually contains very little explicit visual material. The film talks about sex in very graphic detail instead. In terms of the eroticism of the film, the viewer shares a position very much akin to Graham’s. We are titillated by the intimate revelations of the characters who talk about things ignored by most films – very personal feelings of sexual inadequacy and vulnerability. In the process, the video camera becomes exposed as a sexual weapon, as Ann turns the tables on Graham and forces him to reveal his own sexual secrets, allowing her to change roles from passive informant into empowered interrogator. In doing so, the film provides a reflexive comment on the psychoanalytic aspects of the film-viewing situation itself. Soderbergh underscores this point brilliantly during Ann’s videotape session, where he crosscuts and overlaps the taping of her sexual confession and John’s replay of it on the TV monitor, which ambiguously confuses the two and references it to the film we are actually watching, thereby cleverly creating a film-within-a-film-within-a-film structure.

In terms of his subsequent career, Soderbergh has refused to be pigeon-holed, deliberately opting to work with different genres and budgets, and even to direct other people’s material. Sex, lies, and videotape, nevertheless, has had an enormous influence on subsequent independent films. As Geoff Andrew has written:

“Sex, lies and videotape proved once and for all that it was quite possible to make a critically and commercially successful film on a low-budget, using a small cast of comparatively unknown actors, a handful of locations and a low-key, sensitive, literate script; as such, it was influential in encouraging other young American film-makers to follow suit in making character-driven chamber-pieces.”

The elements that Andrew cites – its low-budget, minimum number of locations, ensemble cast, and character-driven story – can be found in numerous American independent productions that turn up each year at festivals such as Sundance and Slamdance. The differentiating aspect of Soderbergh’s film rests largely with its unusually smart script, which managed to address something in American culture that had been largely repressed at the time, namely, people’s very real fears of sex in an age in which sex had become so intimately associated with death.

Posted 16 February, 2008

Films of J. J. Murphy at Anthology Film Archives

 

THE FILMS OF J. J. MURPHY, Saturday and Sunday, March 1 and 2 at 7:30 PM at Anthology Film Archives in New York City.

FILMMAKER IN PERSON!

Though he’s perhaps best-known for PRINT GENERATION, in which the imagery of a one-minute piece of film, re-photographed fifty times over, becomes entirely abstract, J. J. Murphy’s body of work encompasses a number of remarkable and beautiful films, in a variety of styles and modes. His structuralist bona-fides are amply demonstrated by PRINT GENERATION, but an encounter with his other films reveals his remarkable wit and formal range. From the minimalistic simplicity of HIGHWAY LANDSCAPE, and the found-footage inventiveness of SCIENCE FICTION and PREVIEW, to the disarmingly comical yet quizzical beauty of the great SKY BLUE WATER LIGHT SIGN, J. J. Murphy’s films are as essential as they are difficult to pigeon-hole.

Anthology Film Archives
32 Second Avenue
New York, NY 10003

I will be screening a program of my early experimental films on these two evenings. For additional information, please see the Anthology Film Archives Web site. Click here.

Posted 10 February, 2008

Police Beat

One of the best as well as most underappreciated independent films of the past several years is Robinson Devor’s Police Beat, which played at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival, received a modest theatrical release, and finally came out on DVD only this past summer.

The script was written by Devor and Charles Mudede, who writes about crime, among other subjects, for Seattle’s alternative newspaper, The Stranger. Like Maya Deren and Sasha Hammid’s avant-garde classic Meshes of the Afternoon (1943) and such indie films as Lodge Kerrigan’s Clean, Shaven and Darren Aronofsky’s Pi, Police Beat revels in extreme subjectivity, exaggerated by the use of an anamorphic lens. The film deals with the relationship between the inner mental state of its conflicted protagonist, Z (Pape Sidy Niang), an immigrant bicycle cop from Africa, and the harsh reality he encounters on a daily basis. In this case, we are presented with a crime film, in which Z merely goes through the motions in his investigations of disturbing and horrific acts that occur around Seattle – someone decapitates a large bird in the public park, a gruesome knifing, a suicide, or a man suddenly devours raw meat in a supermarket – while his own anger remains largely repressed.

Police Beat opens with a bloated corpse floating in the water. As Z stares at the body, it’s clear that he is far more preoccupied with his own doomed interracial love affair with a woman named Rachel, whom we see him kiss in a brief flashback. She has decided to go on an extended camping trip with her male roommate (Jeff), cancelling her planned dancing lesson with Z, while continuing to lead him on. Z wonders, “Who teaches that kind of understanding?” While investigating an incident in which an elderly woman claims to have been attacked in her yard and struck on the head, Z fantasizes a scene in which Rachel visits her grandfather, who suggests that both she and Jeff have no respect for Z’s feelings. Z tells the victim, “Your tree is dead. And if it is not chopped down, it will continue to harm and disturb the living.” It’s a lesson that he might apply to his own mad infatuation. While later getting a massage from Mary, Z remarks, “Lovesickness is pain. It has physicality. It’s as real as a lump.”

The voiceover narration, which is in Z’s own native language of Wolof and translated into English subtitles, conveys his growing sense of personal anguish, self-doubt, and alienation. When Rachel doesn’t respond to his numerous phone calls, he stands on a train overpass and rants, “Comes from Africa! Has green card! Two car payments left! Desires to be a fast reader! Takes an American Presidents class! Plans to purchase apartment building in Federal Way! Most women would find that to be an attractive man.” Throughout Police Beat, Z struggles unsuccessfully to decipher and adapt to the confusing mores of his adopted country. When Rachel finally calls and tells him she misses him around halfway through the film, Z literally jumps up and down while skipping rope in a puddle against the backdrop of the city skyline, but his temporary exuberance is only a setup for an even greater letdown. He later concludes that both relationships and the world are “cruel.”

In the film’s only real subplot, Swan, Z’s white police partner from Alaska, has also lost his bearings. He falls for a prostitute from Wisconsin named Mary, and proceeds to engage in unprotected sex and drug use. Z can’t comprehend Swan any better than either Rachel or Mary, who chooses to give up her young child to social services rather than (as Z suggests) to leave him with a family member. There are scenes in which Z rides in the back of a police car with other officers. Z dreams of moving up from being a bicycle cop to having his own patrol car. His superior offers encouragement, but counsels Z to be more observant and careful in his reports so that they will stand up in court. Is Z being turned into an informer? As the film progresses toward its conclusion, Swan gets busted for his illegal activities. Z complains about the humiliating manner in which his partner is arrested, but Mary accuses Z of turning in Swan. Z never denies it.

Z serves as a kind of moral reference point in the film. He loses patience with a bicyclist, who rails against the evil policies of George Bush and threatens to kill him. This offends Z, who tells him, “If you don’t know about the law, I will tell you right now. Threatening the life of the president is threatening my life too.” This shows Z’s conservative nature, but also how out of touch he really is with the local denizens. In a recent interview in the Canadian film magazine CineAction, Mudede explains this aspect of Z’s character: “What I wanted to show is that actually my experience, as an African, of Africans, is that they’re very conservative. They actually think Europeans are kind of wild and crazy and have no regard of tradition, of history, of customs. And in that sense, you have this guy who comes into this country, and he’s looking around him, and he is really trying to adjust to a new and more flexible kind of moral reality.” At one point Z attends the lindy dance session that he originally had bought for Rachel, but, caught up in the spirit of dancing, he kisses his female partner, managing to provoke a minor ruckus.

Z, however, becomes so obsessed with his love relationship that it starts to feel as if he’s becoming as unhinged as the rest of the characters in the film, especially after Rachel acknowledges her infidelity. At one point, he even says, “She does not understand she has said such amazing things to a man with a gun,” suggesting that Z might himself be capable of committing a heinous crime, especially when someone is toying with his feelings. He laughs and vows, “Rachel, I will destroy you.” A sense of foreboding and tension builds as Z investigates a new crime scene and imagines hugging Rachel, but the film ends on an ambiguous note.

Devor has expressed little regard for mainstream conventions, telling Tom Charity in cinema scope, he didn’t even bother to shop the script in either New York or LA because “I knew I would never get financing there.” According to Devor, “Somebody said they liked the film because it wasn’t a traditional three-act structure character arc. It definitely isn’ that. Let’s face it, it really was an experiment.” Police Beat manages to hold the viewer’s attention largely through Z’s impassioned interior monologue, the semi-surreal and often filtered images of cinematographer Sean Kirby, the poetic and inventive text of Z’s police reports, episodic structure, and superb musical score. These elements help to turn Police Beat into an engaging mood piece and fascinating character study that ends up being much closer to the spirit of international art cinema than a classical Hollywood narrative. A film like Police Beat makes a strong case that authentic indie films continue to be made despite what industry spin doctors and their apologists would have us believe.

Produced by the non-profit Northwest Film Forum, the low-budget and regionally flavored Police Beat is one of the most insightful films made about the recent immigrant experience by allowing us to perceive American culture and, hence, ourselves through the pained eyes and naked vulnerability of a true outsider.

Posted 3 February, 2008