I remember my first film. I’m not referring to "The Manipulator and the Subservient" but rather my very first experimentation with the filmmaking process, otherwise known as "Half-Closed Eyes." I made this short in Cegep (an academic limbo between high school and university that we have here in Quebec) and at the time I was pretty proud of it. The story was ambitious, the characters were fully fleshed out and the editing and camerawork, while pedestrian and sloppy by any standard, were still pretty good considering it was my first attempt at making any kind of narrative film. Of course, watching it now, I realize it’s an extremely amateur affair that I would never for the life of me expose to the public, especially audiences who’ve come to know and appreciate me for films like, "Amy’s in the Attic," "Dark Lotus," "Vampyros Lesbos" and so on.
Such is the case with "27 Mann St.," a 14-minute experimental narrative piece by Chris Berry. While the film won awards for cinematography and editing at the Riverside Reel Film Festival, an annual affair by the high school Berry attends and has the kind of charm associated with everyone’s first student film, these are cards a filmmaker can only carry so far before the reality of things sets in and all the flaws of the picture become more than apparent for critics offering constructive criticism.
"27 Mann St." concerns the affairs of one Richard Nick Vonaheer (played by director Berry himself) who wakes up after a party in his own house in a town hundreds of miles away from his own and out of state no less. People in this new town seem to recognize him but not as Richard, but rather, Robert Thomas Atchison. When he attempts to drive back home to his own town, he phones his wife who doesn’t appear to have a clue who Richard is and threatens to call the cops. Then at some point, Richard runs into a soothsayer (amusingly played by a high school student, Liz Dilorenzo, who refers to Richard as "kid") who waxes philosophic on themes of identity and such, resulting in Richard running off and eventually waking up in his hometown and actual house. The end of the film is ambiguous and unfortunately, like most films that try to ape the "Twilight Zone"/David Lynch approach to non-linear, open-to-interpretation storytelling, it fails at sustaining our interest in a mystery and instead leaves us fuming at having been taken on a journey only to be left hanging by a self-indulgent, bogus finale with no rhyme or reason behind it.
Now considering this was made by a high school student, you may feel I’m being too harsh here, but in the interest of full disclosure, I was specifically asked to provide constructive criticism with the hope that the "kinks" in the film could be worked out to make the film more professional and polished so that it could be presentable at film festivals. In this current state, I’m afraid, director Berry should cut his losses and focus on a new project altogether as aside from student film festivals, I can’t imagine this film having any kind of life, outside of YouTube.
First and foremost, the narrative structure is far too obtuse for audiences to get emotionally involved in. Part of what makes things difficult for audiences to connect to the material is the fact that there are very few scenes that are allowed to just sit and simmer in the third eye of the audience. The thing with David Lynch is, he purposely paces his films at almost glacial speeds with the idea that his audience is watching a moving painting with all kinds of subtexts and symbolism going on. By the time you finish watching one of his films, you have more than enough material to work with as far as coming up with an interpretation goes. In the case of "27 Mann St." transitions between scenes are so quick and often feature gimmicky dissolves and zoom-ins that you haven’t quite had enough time to process what you’ve just seen before.
Secondly, the camerawork in the film is rather sloppy. There are very few, if any, close-ups as everything in the film tends to be shot in wide masters or medium shots at best. There are some key moments in the film that could’ve used some tight punch-ins to emphasize Richard’s confusion. Particularly when Richard leaves the cafe and walks through the park, encountering people who know him as Robert. The camera never moves from its extremely wide master. Given the poor audio in these sequences, we can barely hear what’s being said because the camera is so far away.
Thirdly, as alluded to before, the audio needs a lot of work. Musical transitions are abrupt and could have probably used some cross-fades as well as a few decibel drops to boot. I’m also not sure what device was used to record the sound on, but if I had to guess, I would say it was just the mic on the camera itself and that’s a big no-no, especially if you’re recording dialogue. You need to have an expert sound mixer on set to isolate the sound so that it comes out as crisp and clean as possible. Though I will say that the use of music in the cafe scene was well done and did a good job of covering up the badly recorded dialogue.
And finally, the acting. Now again, I know this is a high school production, but if Berry has any inclination to further his craft as a filmmaker he could stand to learn one important lesson. When it comes to film, there are two things above anything else that determine its success – story and actors. In a perfect situation, a film has a strong command of all the facets of filmmaking, but more often than not, an audience will forgive dollar store production value if the story is entertaining/enlightening/engaging and the actors hired to bring it to life are equally as compelling. This is why no matter what the budget of any given indie production may be, hiring real actors is absolutely essential. Unless you’re Laurence Olivier or have had some training in the craft yourself, a director should never cast him/herself in their own work. Believe me, I speak from experience. There are so many hats to wear on an indie production that you often have very little time to get absorbed in the very real and very important process that comes with building a character and his/her emotional arc. If I’ve ever cast myself in my own films, it’s usually out of convenience (since I have been trained and think I’m pretty good, actually) or because I really, really couldn’t find anyone else. There are so many resources an indie filmmaker can take advantage of when it comes to casting his/her film. If you can’t afford union scales (which if you’re just starting out, you probably can’t) then there’s tons of schools with film and theatre acting students who are just jumping at the chance of starring in a film and building their resume. I have plenty of actor friends who’ve made "careers" out of starring in student/indie films, almost to the point where they’ve become indie celebrities in their own right. I’m not sure what, if any, experience the cast in this production had, but they all lack the chops to make this story credible. And word to the wise, never cast actors who are clearly not the age of the characters they’re supposed to be playing. Your film will quickly turn into an unintentional comedy before you know it.
There you have it. I think Chris Berry has some good ideas and could probably stand to take what I wrote to heart and perhaps do a remake of his own production keeping all of these things in mind. If he’s hellbent on having an open-ended twist at the end, at least have the courtesy to pepper hints throughout the story so that upon a second, third, fourth viewing, the picture becomes clear. People love mysteries, but they don’t like being made for fools by snarky filmmakers who think they’re more clever than everyone else but not clever enough to finish their film in an emotionally and intellectually fulfilling fashion.
"27 Mann St." is available online to view at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iCnZ2crgl5Y