More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2013
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)
30 November (revised 3 December)
S = script
A = acting
C = cinematography
M = music
P = pacing
F = feel
9 = mid-point of scale (all scored out of 17, 17 x 6 = 102)
The title of Channeling* (2013) is deliberately multivalent, meaning both the sense of He channelled his energies into archery, and putting something on a channel (so that others can see and hear it).
As director / writer Drew Thomas told us in answer to one of my questions, the family of whom Wyatt (Taylor Handley), Jonah (Dominic DeVore) and Ashleigh (Skyler Day) are the grown-up offspring is a dysfunctional one : one son travels from Yemen for a funeral, and is then (in his only real-time appearance) told off by the father for not being there in time. I had asked because, when we see him, as a younger man caught on home video, pick up a boy at whom he has barked orders, it is unclear what he did, but it smacked of abuse.
As with Ashleigh’s confessional moment on camera into the mirror, Thomas said that he had intended to portray a self-loathing that might lead someone to seek approval from ratings for their actions or choices (made or to be made). When we saw this system of rating manipulated in the night club, and indeed the events that had led up to it, the film did seem momentarily a bit insubstantial and trivial in a way that The Bling Ring (2013) is in spades, but it moved away from it, and this was something, perhaps a little self-indulgently, that Thomas almost did throughout the film of mining different genres for what they were worth before moving on, and a little too much at the risk of lacking cohesion.
Saying that, the dummy commercial that opens the film is funny, thought provoking, and satirical, with insights into where the world of Twatter and what I call Arsebook logically lead to – it plunges one straight into a counterfactual world that, as in Looper (2012), does not stray far from the things that we know in what it changes.
The moments of humour characterize the film, although we are not always sure that it is permitted to laugh, and it also expects us to do some work in piecing together what has happened in and following the pursuit sequence that we see. Whether it is the equipment that was giving us the audio or how it has been recorded that made the early dialogue hard to follow was unclear – it might partly have been ‘tuning into’ Wyatt’s accent (different from that of his brother, but then his brother is an army sergeant, and has been serving for a long time), or partly that, as in Top Gun (1986) (for example), those in situations of combat or other peril are not perfectly audible in their pressurized communication.
Not least since this is set in California and begins with a car chase, expectations of topping Drive (2011) spring to mind, but the excitement of the action on the road, and elsewhere, has been styled, Thomas told us, to be more like the era of Dirty Harry (1971) (he did not name that series of films) and of film noir. Just in these things (there was a feel of The Rockford Files or Starsky and Hutch, not least with the token black guy who is the IT whizz), there was already quite a mixture of feels, let alone with a gangland punishment (including a British-sounding baddie ?) that made one wonder if it was going to have equivalent scenes in Seven Psychopaths (2012) or – sticking with Colin Farrell – In Bruges (2008) in its sights.
Whether these disparate elements enhance or dissipate the film’s energies, I remain unsure, as it is all too true that many a science-fiction film sticks to type, whereas this one shows off its director’s literacy of references. It also has an enviable soundtrack, making an impact right with the opening commercial, and even a live band in the night club reminiscent of The Doors.
The other question that I asked relates to a film that I only saw once, but which teasingly plays with the question of free will versus determinism, which is Michael Douglas in The Game (1997) : appropriately ‘channelled’ by the festival’s founder**, Chris King, I asked Thomas whether the technology of people sharing their actions and following their ratings, which the film initially seems to be about, had come first, or whether the deterministic theme had always been what interested him most (it had). He had wanted to explore the ways in which people do not (or refuse) to take responsibility for what concerns them, and had seen a link with how people in the US use the technology of social media to arrive at an answer based on what others tell them.
If that Doors tribute was deliberate, maybe it leads off in some other directions : Maybe not the advocacy of mescalin and other mind-altering substances, though, in the film, we see tablets of what turns out to be called Oxy crushed and then snorted as if it were coke, but using the edge of the pervasive sort of mini-tablet as a straight edge to line it up.
Perhaps the Warhol-type being famous for fifteen minutes, and just doing things to get a higher number of followers, is a sort of intoxicant or tranquillizer, not unlike Marx’s ‘opiate of the masses’, not least when we see both what use the club bosses are putting participants’ behaviour to and how they control it ?
All in all, a thoughtful film, even if it may be too much of a rich blend of influences for the competing calls on our attention to allow us to settle down – though, since Thomas seems to have aimed at the feel that it has, and if it does still hold together, it may not be right (in a film about people taking responsibility) to imagine a film that he have made by suppressing some of those instincts***…
Through fatigue and oversight, a few comments did not get formulated originally as more than notes, from which this text is developed :
Wyatt is not alone in his perilous exploits, for he has an accomplice (or whose side is she on ?) in Tara (Kate French). When Jonah tries to explore what his elder brother has been up to, Tara's allure is tangible, but her first reaction to Jonah using Wyatt's device and channel is hostile (a number of retorts to his attempts to speak, such as wishing him cancer).
Comparisons between the brothers are inevitable and deliberate, and, although we see that the professional soldier (Jonah) is tough, and can also drive, he is never going to be Wyatt (perhaps a pressure that he has always put on himself, helped by his father's attitude and actions).
Perhaps it is Tara's confusion, on all levels, that leads her to blow hot and cold towards Jonah, but she definitely starts by imputing blame : here, there seems to be a sort of fog of war about who people really are and who did what, which, in a digital age, when people do masquerade, and when the film explores the boundaries between what is real, what staged (and what predictable, what fixed), makes for even greater richness of reference.
Other questions from the Q&A
Had the Eyecast technology been patented ? Thomas seemed pleased enough not to have been sued, and did mention Google glasses (which, he said, make one look like a dork). He did not appear to have investigated whether it had any commercial possibilities.
Was Eyecast a real application (some would say 'app'), or had the screens that showed it been green-screened ? Yes, it is a real application, but, for technical reasons, some screen-shots had been re-done in post production.
Was Ashleigh meant to be sympathetic or irritating ? Thomas took it that the questioner must have found her irritating (which was confirmed), but answered by emphasizing her position as a person seeking approval (see main text, above).
Given the acts that people are performing or committing on a live channel, why were the police not - or slow to be - involved ? Thomas pointed to other works on film and t.v. where the police lag behind, and suggested that the same might be as true here. (The Agent Apsley wondered whether Eyecast had bought them.)
* One ‘l’, because it is a US spelling.
** Who relayed questions through a microphone linked to the laptop for the Skype connection.
*** Just one likely flaw : when Jonah goes to Eyecast, gains access by his brother’s account name, and passes himself off as he, the assumption is that Wyatt never did what Ashleigh does and put herself on camera by reflection. (It could be that, given how the account has been used, that was never done.)
If you want to Tweet, Tweet away here
Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)