Saturday 30 June 2012

20th Century Man (2012)

Director: Dustin Lee
Stars: Joseph Adams, Sarah Carleton and Ed Crepage Jr
This film was an official selection at the 8th annual International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival in Scottsdale in 2012. Here's an index to my reviews of 2012 films.
This short film aims to do a heck of a lot in under twelve minutes. It's a science fiction movie, a romance and a thriller. It's a silent movie. Most of all, it's a drama. One IMDb reviewer suggested that it felt like a two hour picture condensed into a quarter of an hour and that's a pretty good way to look at it. It is very much the essence of a feature film, condensed so assiduously that even the dialogue is stripped away. Everything we see has meaning and writer/director Dustin Lee, who shot the film for a mere $2,500 of Kickstarter money, was obviously playing around with cinematic language. It's not just a feature condensed into twelve minutes, it's a film class textbook condensed into twelve minutes too. The use of technique is the greatest success, perhaps aided by the silent approach as the cast and crew were forced to make themselves known and understood without the benefit of words. For the most part, they succeed.

We follow Robert Wallace, a young scientist who's built a time machine to demonstrate at the next World's Fair. It's a simple device, the budget not allowing for the grandeur of the one in George Pal's movie. It's more like an open cage with wires, with a typewriter to trigger it and a flux capacitor to power it, albeit without the need for a DeLorean. We first see Wallace in black and white, as befits 1938, but a device malfunction means that his two week proof of concept trip into the future becomes 76 years and he arrives in 2014 in colour. I really liked how the last shot of 1938 isn't of Wallace but of his wife, Anna, who is given the much harder task of staying behind. She's dead by the time her husband arrives in 2014, but she never leaves the story and the way it progresses is as satisfying as it is predictable. It doesn't take a rocket scientist, or a time traveller, to see where it's going long before it gets there.

Ironically for a film about time travel, its biggest problem is its sense of time. As a silent movie nut, I liked the opening scenes very much, but they're set a full decade after Al Jolson delivered his death blow to the silent era. Even Charlie Chaplin was done with silent films by this point and he had stuck with the concept longer than anyone. Maybe the choice of 1938 was tied to the reference to the Buster Crabbe serial Buck Rogers on the scientist's desk. That was released in 1939, when the big picture of the year was Gone with the Wind, not just shot in sound but in Technicolor too. The art deco font used in the credits is quintessentially twenties so again is far too early for this timeframe. Only the music really seems to fit. Howard Hanson's Romantic Symphony was written in 1930 and was flexible enough to also be used in Alien, but it's full of the sort of swell and grandeur so prevalent during the golden age of Hollywood. It's very 1938.

How much you enjoy this short is likely to depend on how much attention you pay to the details and how easily you can overlook them. As a ride, it's great fun and Dustin Lee speeds us along with panache. You're likely to leave the film full of emotion, not least because of the magnificent way the single word of dialogue is used. I dare your heart not to skip a beat at that point. With repeat viewings though, you're more likely to notice the details that he speeds us along past and if you're the sort of nitpicker that notes plot inconsistencies in the most emotional movies, you'll find a few here. The timing grated for me the most but there were other issues too. I looked too closely at the props. I thought too long about how Wallace's time travel worked. I wondered too much about why people were waiting for him in 2014, given the device's history in between, as neatly outlined in newspaper clippings. It's all unfair to notice in a $2,500 short, of course.

It's fairer to point out that a number of the actors are too young for their parts, including Joseph Adams as Wallace, though he's otherwise capable in the role. He does everything that's asked of him; it's just that his face isn't old enough, both in years and eras. I don't buy that face as being from 1938. I was impressed far more by Sarah Carleton. She gifted Anna with a echoing timeless quality that was palpable; everything she does in 1938 ensures her prominence in 2014, even though she didn't make it there in person. I bought into how easily her husband could leave her behind but how impossible it was for him to stay away from her, even when the gap between them is time. After Lee's use of the cinematic toolkit, which any film fan is going to analyse even as the film runs, it's Anna who lingers after the credits roll. We find that we don't want to leave her either; she obviously has much to say, even in a silent movie. That's good acting.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the review. The budget of the film was actually around $500, half of which was spent on food for the cast & crew! We didn't raise the Kickstarter funds until after the film was completed. The $2500 we raised went towards festival submissions and music licensing fees for Hanson's symphony :)