Tuesday 12 August 2014

The Constant Epiphanies of Billy the Blood Donor (2007)

Director: Nathan Blackwell
Stars: Daniel Brodie and Lauren Henschen
One of the main reasons behind my reviewing an Arizona feature a week is that many of these films are worthy of being seen but nobody has a clue that they exist and I'm sure The Constant Epiphanies of Billy the Blood Donor is a great example. Most people within the Arizona film scene know of Nathan Blackwell; many know him from more than just his hilarious webseries, Voyage Trekkers. Yet those who want to go back to see how his earlier work led him to that point have only been able to see his short films thus far. Sure, they include gems like Masters of Daring, Zombie Team Building and Logan Must Make Star Wars, but there were features before them that have been insanely difficult to see. There's Forever Midnight, shot in 1999 on 16mm, and this film from 2007, which have both been teasing us from subsidiary pages at the Squishy Studios website. I finally got to see this at last year's LepreCon, at which Blackwell was a special guest, as he kindly allowed me to screen it after my set of sci-fi shorts.

Like most earlier films, it doesn't approach the quality of Blackwell's later work, but hey, some of the first few episodes of Voyage Trekkers don't approach the genius it later became either and they're still worth watching. Billy the Blood Donor is a much slower paced comedy than Blackwell fans will be used to, with lead actors who don't feel like lead actors, but it's full of clever dialogue and it goes somewhere I haven't seen before. You want a tagline to sum it up? How about this? It's an episode of Scooby-Doo, Where are You? written by Franz Kafka. Perhaps the Czech master merely adopted a pseudonym of Logan Blackwell to write the play this was apparently based on. Certainly it feels like a play, with few and sparse sets for the actors to play in and a stronger focus on dialogue to drive things forward than on acting. Many of the Squishy Studios regulars appear here, though some are scarily young. Half the cast of Logan Must Make Star Wars are here, including leading lady Lauren Henschen, as utterly different as could be imagined.

As the title suggests, we're here to follow Billy Walbert, who is, let's face it, an utter dweeb. He's studying biology in college but doesn't appear to comprehend how to talk to girls, or anyone else for that matter. He's picked on ruthlessly by his brother. He can't wear a tie. He can't even sit on a couch with a cushion on it. He certainly can't hug, but hey, I get that one. He also only seems to own one shirt which at least cuts down on production budget. And yet, he's the hero of our story, because even if we can't find a way to identify with Billy personally, we can all identify with the situations he finds himself caught up in. One of the strongest aspects of the film is the frequency with which it hurls us into surreal scenarios that are as utterly recognisable from our lives as they are obviously exaggerated for comedic effect. Personally I haven't ever been hired by someone who asked no questions in my interview, then suggested I start in five minutes. However I certainly know people like the interviewer. 'Inarticulateness, that's interesting.'
Billy is one of those people who goes along with anything to make life easier. He goes to American Blood to give blood but ends up getting hired instead. And promoted. He's promoted before he even does any work by a man he's never met who talks to him over a speaker. Rochester, the man behind the company, tells him he loves him, tells him he's a fool, tells him to take the day off. Billy can only sit and gape, but that's what he does best in the world, that and allow people to run roughshod over him. In the morning after being hired, he shows up to a meeting where his boss points out that they'll need to close down as they've been haemorrhaging money. All it takes for that to turn completely around is for Billy to chime in with a hesitant, 'What about advertising?' They take that and run with it and, hey presto, Billy's now the Senior Assistant Manager. Well, for about five minutes. Then Rochester shows up and promotes him to Night-Time Manager. 'You'll need a suit,' he points out. 'Here, take mine.'

If this sounds surreal, you only know the half of it. Every scene is a fresh dose of weirdness for Billy, who can't even sit on his girlfriend's couch without her grabbing a phone call from the grocery store, lying to him about what was said and rushing out, to promptly disappear from the film for a while. He can't show up to work without being mobbed by potential blood donors who are there only because of him. And he certainly can't even go to his manager's office without being confronted by a strange man wearing dark glasses and drinking from an ornate, if plastic, goblet in a dim red-lighted basement. 'I've finally figured out where God's been hiding all these years,' he explains to Billy. 'Now I'm drinking his heart and I plan to become him by Memorial Day weekend.' We've only just passed the halfway mark and it's already gone from mild surreality to batshit craziness. The bad jokes this bizarre gentleman recounts in monotone are the most normal part of the whole affair and they still make us want to punch him.

The downside of the film is pretty obvious. The leads don't act so much as they float through the picture in a sort of dreamlike state of accepting bemusement. The more capable actors recognisable from a slew of short films from Squishy Studios, like Logan Blackwell, Craig Curtis and Gabrielle van Buren, are firmly stuck in supporting roles. The leads, Daniel Brodie and Lauren Henschen, were new faces to me until this year's Logan Must Make Star Wars, when Henschen returned to play Princess Leia as a southern gal. 'Y'all are my only hope!' she cries in that film, though she doesn't get remotely as emotional here, even when given a surreal scene of emotion to work with. The talky story is notably slow, weighed down by dialogue and built by stacking one surreal encounter on top of another until we can't help but wonder when it will all collapse in on itself like a giant game of Jenga. The sets are sparsely populated, which just returns us to the dialogue. With Logan Blackwell's source play so dominant, this could have played as well on radio.
However, bizarrely, the upside of the film isn't far different from the downside. Brodie and Henschen may float through the picture, but then so did Jeff Goldblum in Into the Night, as that was the whole point. Any other lead would have grounded Billy so well that he would have been completely out of place in the role. Any other leading lady would have grounded Sherry so well that she wouldn't have been believable with Billy. Putting these two in front of the camera, especially Brodie, and letting the movie happen to them is perfect. The slow pace may turn away many, but it aids the comic timing and emphasises the weirdness going down that piles on top of Billy layer by layer. As to the dialogue, that may well be overwhelming to some but it's what makes the film for me and, as natural as Brodie and Henschen are, they deliver their lines well, even ones like this one from Billy: 'I don't really know what sociology majors do except become sociology teachers who teach sociology students how to become sociology teachers.'

The Blackwells also gift their supporting cast plenty of little opportunities, most of them through making Billy thoroughly uncomfortable. There's a wonderful scene early on, as Billy signs up to give blood. He's already been inflicted with both an annoyingly cheerful nurse and an annoyingly dismissive one, but as they look over his test answers in silence, they play out the scene like he has Ebola or some other death disease, even bringing in a doctor to look at him with worried eyes too. Yet it's only them discovering he doesn't have a job and so deciding to offer him one. This sort of thing happens throughout the film, with Billy stuck in situations that and in front of characters who make him nervous, belittle him, pressure him into doing things that he otherwise wouldn't, just to make the awkward moment go away. I'm sure I'm far from alone in saying that I certainly recognise many of these little moments that Blackwell's supporting cast play out wonderfully. The bastards.

If you've seen the trailer for Dumb and Dumber To and you're eagerly looking forward to it, then there's no way that this is a movie for you. The closest this gets to toilet humour is Billy's brother, heavily under the influence, calling him 'Farty the Space Age Dinosaur'. It's clever humour that explores a transparent mystery by floating a lead character who wouldn't say boo to a goose through surreal scene after surreal scene until he surely wonders if he's real or not. It would be accessible to anyone who's happy to forgive a microbudget for a clever script, but it's especially interesting to fans of Squishy Studios, who will see a whole host of regulars much earlier in their careers. While director Nathan Blackwell looks like he hasn't aged a day since his brief cameo in the Trunk Space scene, others look younger, Gabrielle van Buren so much so that she bizarrely only reminds of herself. It's definitely not up to what would come later and it would have benefitted from a budget and more pace, but it's still well worth a look for Squishy fans.

The Constant Epiphanies of Billy the Blood Donor is available to watch for free on YouTube.

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