Sunday, May 3, 2015

Tuesday's Overlooked Film: A Public Ransom (dir. Pablo D'Stair, 2014)

Pablo D'Stair's micro-budget, monochromatic, minimalist neo-noir (how's that for some abstract descriptors?) is more rewarding to watch and think about than many a conventional mainstream film, and I heartily recommend it to the adventurous. To maximize your adventure, I'm going to say as little as possible about the movie's plot, in which there are very few definites beyond the fact that we see certain things and hear certain things. Oh wait, isn't that actually true of all movies? Well yes, but few movies or narratives of any kind advertise the fact that they are partial information systems. This one, you couldn't help but notice it.

I spotted points of contact with Travis Mills' first two features, The Big Something and The Detective's Lover, although the two directors may not know each other's work. Both are operating out of small-city America (D'Stair - Gaithersburg, Maryland, Mills - Tempe, Arizona) and have an eye for the particular scale and atmosphere of these places which film-makers typically ignore, although so many people make their lives in them. Both directors seem to call out a certain deadpan quality in their actors - Goodloe Byron's Bryant in A Public Ransom is distinctly reminiscent of supporting male characters in the two Mills features. Both directors draw attention to their framing in a way that that commercial film-makers try to avoid; among D'Stair's a priori decisions for A Public Ransom were to shoot everything from stationary camera positions and to hold those positions for fairly long scenes, which naturally throws a focus on the unmoving edge of the frame.

D'Stair has promoted his film energetically to bloggers; that is how I first found out about it. The strategy was successful in generating blog reviews; currently there are 38 "critic" reviews at the IMDB and only one "user" review (mine, which I suppose counts as a critic review too, really). Looking at all those reviews, I notice that even a few of the film's champions get some key points wrong. They almost uniformly note that the film is dense in dialogue, which D'Stair in interviews has acknowledged was very precisely written - no improv here, thanks - but then some of the reviewers seem not to have paid as careful attention to that dialogue as they might.

Specifically, in a film with only three on-screen characters, they bobble their descriptions of the key relationship between Carlyle Edwards' Steven and Helen Bonaparte's Rene, his good friend. The two are NEVER romantically or sexually involved; instead, Steven cheats on his unseen wife Lisa with another unseen woman, Deb - he has multiple phone conversations with both of them, and in the last scene Rene explicitly says that there is no way she ever would have become involved with Steven. I thought I'd clear this up because, as you will see if you watch the film, these issues are pretty pertinent to any meaningful understanding of the story (such as the "story" is). (By the way, "Carlyle Edwards" is D'Stair himself, and I wouldn't be surprised if "Goodloe Byron" and "Helen Bonaparte" are assumed names also, because Carlyle-Byron-Bonaparte, it's just too perfect.)

Anyway, the dense dialogue is worth engaging with, the mildewed (but curiously suggestive) images are worth absorbing, and the movie as a whole has a mesmeric middle-of-the-night quality (as also noted by the fine film critic John Grant at his blog Noirish). The meta-fictional angles are involving, too, since what we have here is a story about not one but two writers who are "collaborating" (sort of) on a story that is partly appropriated from real events that may or may not have been set in motion by the active member of the pair (like Strangers on a Train with scribes).

In the end it's the passive one who seems to come in for harsher moral judgment - but is the character who expresses that judgment standing in for the director? and is the audience meant to share that judgment? Most of the reviewers take it that the answer to both questions is "Yes"; I am not sure, but in any case I did not share the stringent view of the passive writer's inaction. The movie ends on a question mark; each viewer needs to work out his or her own answer.

A Public Ransom can be viewed for free at Vimeo:

A Public Ransom

Information about all of D'Stair's projects - like Travis Mills, he is prolific! - can be found here:

"...Old Fleas, New Dogs..." the films of writer/director Pablo D'Stair

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