Tuesday 11 November 2014

Schism (2013)

Director: Charles Peterson
Stars: Patrick Adam, Patti Tindall, David Lines and Dominic Ross
This film was an official selection at the Phoenix Film Festival in Phoenix in 2014. Here's an index to my reviews of 2014 films.
After making a number of genre shorts and features, but especially Sex and Violence, Charles Peterson of Cool Wave Films seemed to gain a new first name: Controversial. In our eyes, that name now flavours any film he makes; just as we expect David Lynch to be weird, M Night Shyamalan to create twists or Michael Bay to suck, we expect Charles Peterson to be controversial and when he isn't, like with Clint, which casts Carrie Fee but none of her bodily fluids, it feels somehow wrong. However, while directing Clint and The Eleventh Aggression, and swapping hats on other Cool Wave short films, he was also working on Schism, which seems to fit the bill much closer, albeit in a different way. Less controversial in content and more in approach, it's a risky piece that could easily have backfired. After all, how many remember the Duo-Vision concept used by MGM in 1973 for Wicked, Wicked? It opened by applauding itself and its 'new concept in motion picture technique'. This is similar, but is far more memorable for not claiming it's memorable.

There are other reasons why Controversial Peterson succeeds here. Schism is a short film for a start, thus the gimmick only needs to be maintained for 16 minutes rather than 95, technically a few less because of credits and the fact that the bookends appear outside of split screen. The story fits the approach well and Jose Rosete's script, from a story by Peterson and Bill Furedy, is deep indeed. There are double meanings everywhere, all the way down to the lyrics of the Snow Patrol song that ends the film, whose chorus could have been its original inspiration: 'Light up, light up as if you have a choice, even if you cannot hear my voice, I'll be right beside you, dear.' For almost the entire picture, we're given two separate scenes that generally contain the same people in different settings but with the same dialogue, or half of it, at least, given the circumstances. Beyond appreciating the parallels on show, not to mention the skill which tied them together, we're left wondering exactly what the two sides mean.

We begin with Patti Tindall arguing with Patrick Adam, in a car that's hurtling dangerously down the road. Her first words are, 'Will you please slow down?' and they're telling ones. He's Greg Hill and he's far from being a happy camper. She's unnamed, but clearly his girlfriend becoming his ex-girlfriend. He's notably bitter, partly because of the moment and partly because he doesn't handle rejection well, given that his father had left his family before he knew him. 'I don't want to be your friend,' he snaps after she tries for a zone shift. 'I never want to see you again,' he reenforces as he kicks her out of the car. And off he goes, even more violently than before and it's no surprise to watch his car powerfully wiped out as he jumps a red light. All this unfolds in single screen format, but not the single screen we're used to as it's peculiarly small, as if the projectionist failed to understand what letterbox was, so cropped down the sides to match the bars at the top and bottom. I presume the idea is that we're focused in on the moments.
And then the screen splits and we watch instant parallels. There's a digital alarm on the left side and an analogue clock on the right, but the time's the same. Greg wakes up in bed at home on the left but fails to wake up at all on the right because he's in a hospital bed in a coma. Then in comes his father on both sides to apologise. Initially, this unfolds as dialogue on the left, albeit appropriate dialogue for each side, but then some of dad's lines start to be delivered simultaneously in both scenarios, the words the same but the response, of course, completely different. So, assuming that the right hand side of the screen is the real present, what's on the left? Could the right be an ironic one-sided rerun of a prior conversation? Is it Greg's damaged brain imagining the bitter responses he never gave to a new confession? If the title initially refers to Greg's relationships with his father and his girl, does it expand to some sci-fi concept of trauma creating a parallel universe unfolding uncannily close to our own but for one crucial detail?

Who knows? Given how it progresses, with other characters showing up simultaneously on each side, I'd plump for the middle option, that Greg is struggling to make sense of his life in a sort of dream logic as he begins to leave it. Of course, we're watching a film by Controversial Peterson, so even death isn't the surefire assumption that we might expect it to be. This moves into new territory, where 'second chances' end up with multiple meanings, just like everything else in this film. At one point, Greg spits, 'I'm dead to you!' at his girlfriend, which is especially ironic given the dual scenarios we're watching, but it's far from the only line that can be read two ways. In fact, just as Peterson had to effectively shoot this twice, with four actors running through the same lines in two very different circumstances, we really ought to watch it twice to ensure that we don't miss anything. It's almost ironic that IMDb claims it as a 2011 film, when it was started, while the credits plump for 2013, when it was finished. Everything has two faces here.

Certainly the most experimental film in the Arizona Shorts block at this year's Phoenix Film Festival, even with After the Beep showing too, it's also one of the most emotional and one of the most memorable. It's not without flaws though. While Patrick Adam is particularly strong in the earlier scenes with Patti Tindall, herself a reliable local talent if there ever was one, he does have some lesser moments later on when he proves unable to maintain the bitterness of his lines and they become forced. Technically, there's some awkward greenscreen work; I presume it's particularly hard to do effective greenscreen with a black guy in a white suit which is almost luminous because of the deliberate levels of light. Light is used well here, as a marker of life, but it fights effective greenscreen and wins. Mostly though, the cast and crew support the gimmick well and the gimmick supports the script even better. It's great to see a local short film with this level of care and attention given to its writing and structure. We need more Controversial Petersons.

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