Monday, August 6, 2012

Frank Rinaldi's retro SUNDOWNING -- an experimental sci-fi, sleep-inducing thriller -- gets a 3-day run at Anthology Film Archives

The first thing that hit TrustMovies, after watching SUNDOWNING -- the unusual "experimental" film from Chicago-based Frank Rinaldi -- was how oddly retro the entire movie seemed. From its fashions to its often tightly-focused frame, from its "story" (a mere wisp of a thing) to its "effects," which take us back to that much-loved photographic process we used to call posterization -- made use of often in the 1960s-70s, which plays interesting tricks with color and color reversals (see below).

This may very well be intentional on the part of Mr. Rinaldi (the filmmaker is shown below) in order to give his film a kind of timeless -- this-could-be-taking-place-anywhere, past, present or future -- quality. And it works works pretty well in that regard. I only wish more things worked well in the movie, which I gather is trying to combine experimental film with a sort of sci-fi thriller.

I don't usually read any press materials given me about the film in question until after I've watched it. This way I can approach it fresh. After viewing Sundowning and feeling somewhat negative about the experience, I did want to learn more, in case I had perhaps completely missed the boat regarding what the filmmaker was up to. According to the press materials sent out by Anthology Film Archives (AFA), Rinaldi's work "navigates the boundaries between character-driven narrative and experimental filmmak-ing"... while "investigating how non-linear techni-ques and devices can be incorporated into storytelling and conversely how storytelling can facilitate experimental agendas. SUNDOWNING is influenced by neo- and hyper-realist films, but also draws from elements of Technicolor imagery, science fiction, and experimental film and video art." Good enough.

All of the above is understandable and probably commendable. It's the execution that's noticeably lacking. AFA also gives us a rather complete plot analysis, explaining certain things that are not explained within the film. It doesn't matter much, however, because, the plot is so thin and hugely attenuated that within a few minutes, I'm afraid many viewers will be champing at the bit to get on with it.

At the film's beginning, a young Caucasian woman (played by Shannon Fitzpatrick, above), clearly ill, is being looked after by a young Asian woman (Susan Chau, below, right), who is attempting to bring down the former's fever. Who are these people? Clearly the Asian is some sort of caregiver/taker. Later, the formerly sick girl catches sight of herself in the mirror, and... what? Is this surprise? Recall (certainly not total)? Confusion? We don't know.

We do some flower arranging via a TV program, some Yoga moves (above) and then some rock dancing. (Suddenly, with the dancing, there is no sound track. Is this the experimental part comencing, perhaps?) And then we're tucked into bed for the night, followed by an act on the caretaker's part that can only be seen as suspicious, if not hostile. A title card flashes on the screen: END OF DAY 256.

The camera often stays in tight on its subject(s), but there is almost no dialog and no character development here, There's not a hell of a lot of character to begin with: just two women, one active, the other passive, neither of whom exhibits any expression. At around the 40-minute mark, another title card tells us END OF DAY 357. Butterflies, above, are introduced in a big way -- reading about them, seeing them on TV -- and we we think: Ah, metamorphosis! No, not really. At times the sound disappears again, and we begin to wonder: intentional or some kind of glitch?

At the 50-minute mark, things begin to change. Why, we have no idea, and what happens after this (we're at DAY 422 by now) seems suspiciously like bad and/or unbelievable plotting. At least, at this point, events are more frequent. During the first half, things are so slow, repetitive, paltry and boring that sleep seems a possible option. Yet these new events add up to little: a bit of past history that anyone might have experienced, discovering things that probably ought to have been discovered days and days previous, and going back to a learned activity that may not be all that healthy, especially if you like to play with razor blades. Then suddenly we get a blast of books/ pages/words: "Destruction + Reproduction = Construction." Something like that. Though, were it "Abduction + Liposuction = Nip&tuction," I wouldn't have cared.

Now come the visual effects, a more or less riot of images and colors, the best of which has Shannon's maybe-boyfriend putting color all over his face as though it were shaving cream. This begins a section that goes on for almost the remainder of the film and resembles those light shows and special-effect sequences that filmmakers like to throw at us, but usually blending them a bit better into the plot line. Finally we're at end of day 519, which is nearly a year and a half by my count. And we still do not know what is really going on. The movie ends as enigmatically as it began and middled, with yet another title card which I not only figured was coming but even knew what it would say. Shot in Singapore, the credits inform us, the movie might easily have been shot just about anywhere. But maybe there was a tax break offered here.

So, does Sundowning "navigate the boundaries between character-driven narrative and experimental film-making"? Does it "investigate how non-linear techniques and devices can be incorporated into storytelling and conversely how storytelling can facilitate experimental agendas"? Sure, but so do many sci-fi or thriller movies. They use the latest visual techniques and any kind of new ideas they can find or steal, as they try to create something new. Mr Rinaldi takes a rather tired story concept and squeezes it out ultra slowly, and then piles on the visual and non-linear stuff at his conclusion. What's really different about this film is that it moves so slowly and takes so long to tell us so little. But maybe that's why it's experimental. If you want to learn more about the technical aspects of Sundowning, do read this piece that appeared some time back in the Kodak magazine In Camera.

The movie opens this Friday for a three-day run at Anthology Film Archives, as part of its Show and Tell series. Click here for tickets, and here for directions.

2 comments:

Matthew Stechel said...

thanks for the rather full synopsis/review of the film--i had been planning on seeing it earlier tonight (well technically last night now) but got caught up in some last minute work shenanigans.(meaning i didn't get to leave on time in order to make this as planned) While the plotline still sounds interesting to me, its nice to know now that i don't have to completely obsess over the fact that i missed it now the way i usually do when i miss something that's incredibly hard to see otherwise. I very much appreciate that for whatever its worth.

James van Maanen said...

You're welcome, Matthew. Glad to know somebody read this and was interested in the film. It occurred to me while writing that I was telling too much about the plot (which I usually try not to do), but if that proved a help to you, good. (I hope that you would have agreed with my assessment, had you seen this film. If not, then maybe you missed something terrific.) And I wonder if a movie like this might ever turn up on DVD?