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Sunday, 22 December 2013

A Beautiful Waste (2012)

Director: Jon Kasbe
Star: Steve Duncan
This film was an official selection at the Filmstock Arizona 2013 round of the revolving Filmstock film festival. Here's an index to my reviews of all selections.
Steve Duncan is a historian and urban explorer and he would see the two as interchangable. I've read a lot about people who explore the places around us that civilisation has forgotten, both in fiction and non fiction and I find them fascinating. The pictorials that they publish, often pseudonymously, are amazing things to see because they contain things that are amazing things to see, whether that's routine sights empty of the usual clutter or just completely unexpected beauty in places where nobody sees it. What we see late in this film falls into the latter category, all the more unexpected because it's found in the sewer systems under New York. As the tagline for this documentary short would have it, 'Most people don't spend their Saturday nights in New York's sewers. Steve Duncan isn't most people.' We can thank our deity of choice for that because he, along with filmmaker Jon Kasbe, brings us a moment of movie magic here, setting us up for it but never letting us imagine the scope of its grandeur.

The film follows Duncan into the New York sewers, and for a while it's merely interesting. He explains a sense of awe in experiencing true silence in New York City. He shows us a natural stream that was there before the city was, but which is still making its presence known. He talks about such natural things in man made environments in such a way that we feel a connection to the past, which seems to be much of what drives him. 'They're still there,' he says of the things that the first settlers saw. 'They're hidden away and invisible,' but only if we don't know where to look. And here's where it gets special. Duncan is a man who knows where to look. He takes equipment down with him into the depths: a camera, a set of lights, a tripod. And he takes photos in the dark. 'What do you think? Would it make a good picture?' he asks the cameraman who sees what we see, which is to say nothing. Then we see the result, which is a rook between the eyes and then some. I stopped breathing for a moment.

With magic on the table, the rest of the film is far more routine. We only see Duncan, so we only hear a single perspective. There are no other interviewees to quantify how valid that is, so we're forced to trust it. We only see him in one place on one adventure, so we glimpse only a fraction of what he talks about. There's no overlay of maps or old photos to back up the historical data, so again we're limited in scope. Really, this is an experience. It sets us up to be disgusting and, sure enough, we watch Duncan wade in effluent to get to where he wants to be. When it's set us up enough, it hits us with a shock moment that matches what we know from horror movies, but rather than throw horror at beauty, it throws beauty at horror. And once done, it settles down and wraps it up, before letting Duncan walk away, as if this was a one time tease that will stay with us forever. Fortunately it isn't. There are more short films from other directors at Duncan's website, Undercity, along with other similar material. History can be addictive.

A Beautiful Waste can be viewed for free at Vimeo.

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