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On John Brian King’s REDLANDS: a freeform critique
by Pablo D’Stair – battleroyalewithcheese.com
“If we do not find anything very pleasant, at least we shall find something new.” – VOLTAIRE
Before getting to some reactions to the film itself (a film I could write a book about, quite frankly, but will only give some brief reflections on) I want to mention that John Brian King’s Redlands is the third (and perhaps the most intellectually interesting) in a very good run of luck I have had of late with lesser known experimental films that stick to highly stylistic conceits without these conceits ever once running afoul of plot/character development or (the far graver sin, if it went that way) becoming mere gimmicks which tentpole half-formed films into semi-intellectual “things” posing as Cinema (all three films which, it now occurs to me, are also auteured by single writer/directors).
The first film was Randall Cole’s masterful 388 Arletta Avenue—this a film I cannot praise enough nor express, as a writer and novice filmmaker myself, my full jealousy in large enough terms about; the second was the (as far as I understand it) all but unknown gem Skew, from Seve Schelenz, which I highly encourage anyone within the sound of my writ-voice to track down and absorb. These two films built themselves around artful, unique, and actually vibrant use of the “found footage” genre, opening it up, for me, to a reinvestigation, an earnest reassessing of something I had kind of written off as a (sadly) one-note method of filmmaking (a kind of film, at best, harmless and fun and, at worst, pedantic and tedious to the point of insult).
Now, Redlands is not—certainly in any traditional sense—“found footage” (though in portions it utilizes the technique of a character’s “video diary” as a means of storytelling) but it nonetheless is cousin with Arletta and Skew in its use of rigid, voyeuristic trespass as primary means of engagement. Whereas Arletta and Skew find ways to use the notion of “extant filmed material” being deftly and organically arranged to double as directly controlled presentation with conscious narrative intent, Redlands uses a static technique of filmshot, scene duration, and content to almost subvert the “found” angle. That is, the film is not scripted and performed in a way as to suggest it was just a “trimmed down” or “economical” version of something that could have been more filmically energetic, but uses a choice of moments and stricture of their presentation to make one (or at least me) feel as if I, personally, was a “camera left on” in places that in life (and even in traditional cinematic/voyeur narrative) a camera would not be found, as an eye in to moments-between-moments, a way of activating subtext, so to speak, into a wholly dynamic narrative (a very different version of a technique the brilliant television series The Shield often used, I felt: in that series it seemed extra-transgressive that a camera could ever be “documentarily present” at certain moments, the verite of the moments as witnessed by a viewer therefore becoming that much more infused with dread realism).
But, blah blah blah enough with my preamble, let us go and make our visit to Redlands. It is a grim place and a grim film, no doubt, a film one may feel the uglier for rolling around with, but is also, in my opinion, one that is art in how it so thoroughly (to paraphrase Aristotle here, if I may) “transforms pain in to beauty through the alchemy of Cinema.” Get in mind something as if Van Sant’s Gerry had somehow pounded out a lovechild with Egoyan’s Felicia’s Journey and you have a loose idea what I see this film as.
As I intimated earlier, this is a film I think could be expounded on, expansively, in many aspects, but here I am going to riff a bit only on the most evident—and pervasive—thing the film is “about”, the thing around which its scriptural, visual, and rhetorical nuances revolve.
Redlands is about Men (and uses the female center-piece character as way to subtly emphasize this, in its treatment of her as equally necessary and principally disposable) and in that it is about men it follows unavoidably (yes, unavoidably) that it is about misogyny. And though it runs parallel in technique—and sometimes content— to such films, it is not about men and misogyny in the vein of Mamet’s Oleanna (a humanistic, but philosophical/political commentary on the things) nor in the manner of LaBute’s In The Company Of Men (a gallows humorous, satiric dirge on the machinations of males-against-males as much as against females—as much as against themselves, individually) but in a much more guttural, to the bones way—a statement more akin to mournful poetry, a kind of inside-out apologia, than a measured investigation of male conceits, perversions, and faults.
Flatly, the film does not take a measured hand, does not inject any character, scenario etc. that reminds the viewer “this is not the whole world, nor the whole of men, nor all that there is to explore on this subject” but it does not do this only because it needs not: the very insular nature of its scenario and compact lot of players makes the inclusion of “counterpoint” to its point unnecessary (or, hopefully, it imagines that a viewer, themself, will serve as that counterpoint and not need to be reminded within the actions and expression on screen that “not everyone, everywhere is like these people.”)
In Redlands, men use. They use women. And they use women fatuously, with no end in mind—they use them longterm, they use them idly, they use them offhandedly. And men do not like it when women object to this—not when they do it tacitly, not when they do it directly, not even when they “do it” by the sin of showing intimacy, desire, and indicate they wish reciprocity in this intimacy and desire. The film makes this point imperatively, it makes it transparently, it makes it artfully and in varied degrees of expression—one could say it makes it gratuitously, which I only hesitate to do as that is so often seen as “bad” when, in some cases, it is the only way to drive home a point.
From the “central storyline” of Allan (played heartbreakingly, as odious a character as he may be, by Clifford Morts—the actor in the piece afforded the most variety when it comes to material to work with) using the model Vienna (Nicole Fox—who should be a case study for how to actually perform via understated-ness, no camera to give connect-the-dot emphasis to the audience, and so, sadly, giving a nuanced performance that could come off to some as one-note, however much it is not) as an available “thing for purchase and, therefore, control”; to the subplot of Vienna’s boyfriend, Zack (Sam Brittan, whose performance has to be so much given by brief facial changes to denote his character’s shifting, true-to-false, focus that if one blinks they may miss it—a shame, as it is the sort of performance other filmmakers would insist on leaving out to replace with blathering out exposition) using the monetary results of Vienna’s modeling as a means to his own desires, nothing to do with her (and only ever bothering to keep up the thinnest pretext that he wants anything to do with her, to begin with); to the smaller points of Vienna as office-receptionist being an obvious Object to even equally lowly entities in her place of employ (that is, not just subordinate to her “boss” but seen as subordinate, in his eyes, to a worker in no way her “workplace superior”); or (the most interesting of the secondary moments in the film) the girlfriend of Zack’s friend and bandmate not only admitting attraction to Zack, participating in illicit (and male-centric-gratification based) sex with him, but going so far as to indicate she shares in a desire for the very illicitness and type of sexuality engaged in (indicates she hopes to find a welcomed connection there) only to be dismissed once used, no matter that she would be “used” again (once the aspect of “novel control” is gone, so is Zack’s desire to use—for men it can never, never be mutual, and to know it is desired is to lose the sense of arousal, which to men here, is synonymous with the sense of purpose)–from all these things the misogyny bleats.
The predatory presence of the Male Figure in the film permeates every scene, even before there is reason for it to. The unmoving camera steady on Allan preparing the room for Vienna to model nude in (in the first “story sequence” of the film) does nothing but let the natural sight of clothed, portly, uncomfortable, obviously-aroused middle aged man piddling around as the nubile, un-harried young woman strips nude and speaks casually to him about how she is to be situated, says everything that needs to be said—no fine-point needed, no directional-inset-filmshot, no particular music cue is necessary to make the subtextual threat known. The camera needs merely be on and we merely need to watch to the two figures for an instant occupy the same frame to “understand this is what the scene is about” and from there the camera’s unmovingness is a fixated index of all the fine points (the red light of the camera aim-flash situating on the dimple of Vienna’s buttock before the flash goes off is a particularly nice tossaway of focus).
And the predatory presence remains present even when, for all real reason, it need not: Allan, meeting with his preteen daughter, mentions he has a photo studio at his home now and she, desiring a harmless, playful thing to do as means of connecting to her estranged father, is met only with him denying her request to have her picture taken because, yes, he only sees the idea of photographing women (any woman, even his daughter) as a sexual interloping—and this is redoubled in the scene by Allan’s only way of attempting to make his daughter feel that he “isn’t saying she is ugly” by refusing to photograph her being to tell her she must certainly be “driving the boys crazy by now” (a thought quite obviously nowhere in the girl’s mind and one she finds not the least bit balming).
Now—redirecting—there is a second point I want to make, or at least a brief version of it (not that I have plumbed the depth of the exploration of misogyny by a damn sight) that I think is especially important to this as an audience film-experience (because it is a film that must be participatory to be anything, whether willingly or resistant-ly) and that is its use of what others might have already coined (but now I re-coin) “anti-characters.”
What I mean by this is that, contra to the usual (and often profoundly effective, do not get me wrong) technique of a film taking some strides to introduce and explicate certain aspects of the characters, to position them as “at one end or the other, or somewhere in the murky middle” of the moral spectrum (this either done by immediate or second-hand exposition, visual or scriptural) Redlands takes the subversive (though by no means original to it—a technique that has been used often and to profound effect elsewhere) approach of not “writing the characters during the film”. Now: this is not the same as the author of the film not knowing the ins-and-out of the character’s, but rather a method of them “knowing the backstory they just choose not to share.” The characters are fully realized to the artist, but the audience is only given glimpses of these fully realized entities without introduction and so (in some senses) perpetually out-of-context. This is, one might say, how one meets people in life—an individual is a complex, fully formed thing and we do not always find ourselves afforded opportunities to have a long build up to “witnessing” each other, and in this it is unavoidable that so often “extreme moments of humanity” (whether positive or negative) are unsettling, foreign-feeling to witness, and seem absolute.
In the case of Redlands, to make it effective as it intends, the film cannot allow itself to induce a “morality” to any of the characters, to, by suggestion, make one feel “Vienna is the innocent” or “Allan is the pervert” or “Zack is the motherfucker” (and this downward to the second tier characters, as well) based on some filmically-presented evidence. No, this kind of emotional doctoring would do the film no service and neither the audience—all parties (characters and audience) must imperatively meet with no solicited reason to keep company or care for each other, as only in the static space between viewer and creation can the importance of what is witnessed bloom.
In Horror films, as in many others, it is often said that “one must have a reason to want the characters to survive” and this is something I only partially agree with: Yes, there must be a reason but it needs be (and must not be, in my personal aesthetic, anything further than) only “they are human, they could be anyone” as this is the only way for the undercurrents of horror (those I as audience imbue a piece with) to move. If I think a character irredeemable or worthy of “what comes to them”…well, that is on me, no character on screen needs to be scapegoated or rhetorically denuded of a humanity they have, implicitly (not one they “earn by selected examples of behavior”) to excuse this as my perfectly acceptable and meaningful reaction to what I view.
I say this, here, because, in a real way, Redlands is a horror piece, a noir-horror, an existential (more so than nihilistic, though it would be easy to call it that) nightmarescape. And while Redlands can easily present itself as an “over-precise melodrama” or something that “serves no purpose, because who are these people and why should I care about them?” I think emphasizing it as Horror may serve some good to an interested party, going in (not that it is my place to abuse my position as critic to over-suggest artistic intentionality I am only guessing at): because the germ in all true Horror is exactly that–the realization that we can be, all of us, reduced to someone “I have no reason to care about” simply because we are so alone, un-regarded.
Always in Redlands the camera simply lingers, squat, showing us over and over not only what we know before going in, but what we know during each tick and tock of each scene—and in this, we are indicted, doomed as viewer to watch our “prophesy of the evident and unavoidable” repeatedly come to pass before our eyes. Why do the scenes turn out as they do? Why do the relationships define themselves as they do? Well (the film subtextually states) because we already know they will and the unmoving camera does not “show us” anything, but instead makes us see, come to fruition, the results of our every first impression. The film does not aim to surprise, but to, with urgency, do the very opposite of that—to leave us unsurprised, alone with the result of what we could somehow instantly ascertain and were waiting for.