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Sunday 20 October 2013

Sex and Violence (2009)

Director: Charles Peterson
Stars: Patrick Adam, Carrie Rapp and Elias Castillo
This film was an official selection at the Jerome Indie Music & Film Festival in Jerome, AZ in 2013. Here's an index to my reviews of 2013 films.
Examiner film critic Bill Pierce had good reasons for including each of the short films he programmed for the AZ Forbidden Films selection at the Jerome Indie Film and Music Festival, but this was always the gimme. Not only has it caught flak for its content, it actually found itself banned from a local film festival, under suspicious circumstances no less. After it successfully screened as part of the Deadly Event in 2009 and at the Phoenix Film Festival a year later, it was selected as one of a dozen films to be shown at the Cave Creek Film and Arts Festival in 2010. The venue was the Cactus Shadows Fine Arts Center, which sits inside the grounds of the Cave Creek public school, and it was 'school policy' that saw it yanked from the festival line up after an anonymous caller complained about its inclusion. Ironically, it wasn't pulled for either sex or violence, but for 'speech or language that is offensive or inappropriate to the limited forum of the public school educational environment.'

This decision proved controversial indeed. Festival director Suzanne Johnson resigned from the board of directors over it, though she still hosted the event, using the opportunity to deliver a speech about the dangers of censorship and the inappropriateness of a public school as the venue for a 'legitimate film festival.' Her loss, along with another unrelated resignation from the board, was enough for the festival to fall apart. While some of its categories have spun off into their own events, the full festival hasn't been held since. Pierce was also incensed at the decision, making sure to track down a copy of the film before he covered the event so that he could review it anyway, even though it didn't screen. The saddest thing is that, unlike, say, Slaughtered Vomit Dolls, whose numerous festival submissions deliberately aimed at rejection slips for publicity, Sex and Violence is a worthy, albeit controversial, film. While it's no rip-off, the comparison that can't be ignored is to David Cronenberg's Crash.
It starts superbly, as TV news reporter Paul Allen covers a murder/suicide at 40th St and Southern. As Allen, Elias Castillo nails the tone, carefully downplaying horror with clear concern and shock-induced stutter, all while leading us into gruesome footage. It's a routine scene, merely handled superbly; it's the next one where director Charles Peterson, who also co-wrote the story with Jose Rosete, starts us in a far less common direction. At the crime scene, fresh enough to still have a forensic team working around bloody, uncovered bodies, we pan across the crowd to meet the lead characters who couldn't stand out any more overtly if they tried. Amongst the shocked but absorbed looks of rubberneckers, Donald and Cassandra get hot and heavy with each other, their roaming hands only pausing to snap photos of the corpses. As we cut back to bedroom sex scenes with crime scene photos on the wall, Cassandra imagines herself on the ground with the bodies, touching them as she's being touched.

This is a great beginning and there's a great ending to come too, which I'm not going to spoil, but the scenes in between don't play quite as well, as Rosete and Peterson attempt to set up a deep conflict between Donald and Cassandra, only to find that it was never going to happen believably within only thirteen minutes of running time. Were this to be expanded to feature length, a disconnect like this could easily be gradated over a much longer period and play much better, but the short length only allows for a quick bounce between extremes, which is far less believable. Similarly, the embarrassing sex scene midway is supposed to be embarrassing, but it contrasts too overtly with those on either side because of how wildly different it is. A story that should inherently flow through shades of grey doesn't work as well when it only has time to show us the black and white at each end. Of course, given the controversy he stirred up with a short film, I hardly expect Peterson to attempt to expand it.

The acting is decent but flawed. Patrick Adam has more to do than Carrie Fee, but he's less successful. Fee, who was still Carrie Rapp at this point in her career, is clearly dominant as Cassandra. Thankfully, as she demonstrates how freaky her fetish is, she never overplays it to become a freak to goggle at. She appears outwardly normal throughout, even as she emphasises how far away from normal she is inside. It's notable that Fee's brief role in Dust Jacket, also shown at Jerome, could be seen as a wish fulfilment part for Cassandra. This examination of normality is the theme of the film, as Rosete and Peterson ask us, through Donald, to question what 'normal' really means. There's sex and violence here, the film's title being as honest as it is misleading, as this is far from exploitation, but the real controversy isn't about how often the leads are naked but in how Donald answers that question. I'd venture that anyone complaining about the film might wonder if they came up with the same answer.

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