Monday, June 22, 2009

Jennifer Lynch's SURVEILLANCE: Just how ugly does it get? You have no idea....


It's not so much that SUR- VEILLANCE is one of the sickest films I've ever seen. I'm an adult, I can handle sick. Nor is the problem that the movie is death-affirming -- more specifically, it affirms the joy of murder -- rather than life-affirming. We just lived through the Bush adminis- tration. Positive affirmation? Come on now.

The real deal-breaker is this: The movie's writer/director Jennifer Lynch (shown right, of Boxing Helena infamy) and her co-writer Kent Harper (who does double-duty, acting in one of the key roles, as a cop, below) are such unknowing filmmakers that they tip their hand from nearly the very beginning, with the first scene after the opening credits! Consequently, the audience has to be either very young or very dumb not to be able to figure out almost immediately what is going on here.

The set-up -- not to mention the performance of one particular actor -- is so obvious that we hold our breath in hopes that what we're suspecting will somehow change or develop. Not a chance. Instead we spend very nearly the entire film waiting for the big "unmasking." And because what we are sitting through is especially ugly -- sadistic, violent, bloody -- in addition to growing antsy as we await our "surprise," we're also extremely ticked-off.

This is a movie in which at least half the characters are uncaring and inhumane, ranging from moderately sleazy to beyond-the-pale. There are many ways, film-wise, to handle a super-sick scenario such as this, but I am sorry to report that Ms Lynch simply bathes in it. She wallows, she revels, she flounders. This helps prevent our seeing that she can, on occasion, produce a riveting scene or two. As the movie progresses, it becomes clear that the filmmakers have determined to consistently outdo themselves in ugliness and negativity. The culmination? To each his own. Mine arrived when a murder (done in close-up, 'natch) is used to achieve orgasm.

The film's cast is uniformly good at being bad. Bill Pullman and Julia Ormond (shown above) are the leads, but because this is an ensemble film, all of the actors prove important, and I must say that Ms Lynch coaxes arresting performances from all. Even the one over-the-top performance that gives the game away does not reflect bad acting but rather a misjudgment on the part of the actor, the director, or both. (To say more would give away the store.) Among the fine cast are Pell James (shown above), Mac Miller, Cheri Oteri, the indispensable Caroline Aaron, and a terrific child actor Ryan Simpkins (shown below, who played the kidnapped girl in Gardens of the Night: now, there's an ugly film that manages to earn its darkness via theme, content and execution).

In the press kit for her movie, Ms Lynch talks a lot about lies and the like -- and how they figure into her characters and her film. Oddly enough, the press kit seems just as full of prevarication, whether willful or simply reflecting the confusion in Ms Lynch's mind, I'm not certain. But we get comments about "listening to the child inside," how each character "is a liar and each holds the truth," and -- most pompously -- comparisons to Kurosawa's Rashômon. My favorite is this: "Little Stephanie (shown above) has the eyes and soul of a child." Hello: She is a child, so she probably has the kidney and liver of one, too.

Most tellingly, Ms Lynch mentions that her father (film director David Lynch) called her one night to tell her that she simply could not use her proposed ending for the film - which she did. She called it dark, he told her it was evil. The filmmaker evidently does not understand the difference between the two. I don't think you'll have the same problem.

Surveillance
, distributed by Magnet Releasing opens this Friday, June 26, in both New York City (at the Cinema Village) and Los Angeles (at the Nuart). July will see an expansion into other cities. Here in NYC, the film has also been available On-Demand for some time now. Consult your local TV-reception source to determine how to "demand" it in your area.

2 comments:

GHJ - said...

Really interesting stuff Jim. Too bad the film is that obvious. I had high hopes for this one. I'll still check it out, but with reservations now.

James van Maanen, said...

Do check it out and let us know your thoughts. Obviously, this one got me on my moral high-horse. (Which I often think I no longer possess -- until a movie like SURVEILLANCE comes along to prove that I do.)