Monday, April 03, 2006

Five Lines

Five Lines: (or 5 Lines)
Director; Writer: Nicholas Panagopolus (also with Christian Zonts)
Distributor: Brainbox
I attended a special screening at the AFI Silver Theater in Silver Spring, MD. on January 6, 2003, with preceding reception for the Mid-Atlantic Regional Showcase (MARS). This was shown in high-definition in a theater equipped to show it directly from a digital format. Relatively few theaters do this yet, and availability of this presentation mode (before conversion to standard 35mm) seems to improve clarity in presentation (particularly when there is varying motion at different distances from the viewer), so that the film looks a bit like Todd AO or VistaVision from the 1950s.

But, the real importance of the film is its content, issues, and screenwriting concept. And it was a labor or love, made apparently in 1999 and 2000, when the Washington Monument was being renovated. Which gets us to the concept definition: five strangers, who normally ride the five separate Washington DC Metro lines, have their very different lives crisscross, as, over the next five days, they head for tragic ends.

Now this sort of story of intersecting lives is rather popular in the art movie world, at varying levels of ambition and expense. Well known examples include Robert Altman’s Shortcuts, Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia (1999), and Jill Sprecher’s Thirteen Conversations on One Thing (2001) (Sony Pictures Classics). In Sprecher’s film, several of the acting performances are particularly poignant, such as Matthew McConauhey as the assistant DA who hits someone with a car, and Alex Burns as insurance agency executive Ronnie English, who treats a scene where he fires a subordinate with great finesse. The idea of having strangers interact in a geographically interesting place is often tried, as in the 2003 film Lost in Translation. Even the nature of a Metro system has been used before to generate screenplays, as in the 1998 film Sliding Doors, by Peter Howitt, exploring alternate universes with the London Underground. European film, especially French, likes to explore the connection of characters to specific places (remember Swimming Pool in 2003).

This film really keeps the moviegoer on edge, however, because of the problems it creates for the characters, the relevance of these problems to major societal issues, and because of the way it exposes, reveals, and develops the characters with increasing visual and precise visual detail.

For me, the most interesting problem was the young Army Staff Sergeant (E-6) Mike Catalano, played by Nat Taylor. Actually he looks too young to be that well-ranked as an NCO, and he seems rather clean cut and serious. He is challenged in a bar (after getting off the Foggy Bottom Metro near GWU on the Blue and Orange lines) for an initiation or tribunal exercise at the Iwo Jima Memorial along Route 50, near the Arlington Towers apartments and near the Arlington Cemetery. He gets there, and, all right, the exercise is to “roll queers,” (or, literally, “clean up some monuments”) and one of them is a former civilian buddy from high school who “wasn’t supposed to be gay.” They leave the scene in a cab with a driver who couldn’t care less. The rest of this subplot will explore the hatred (however inconsistent across different commands) of homosexuals found in today’s military, especially after President Clinton tried to lift the ban and was forced to settle for “don’t ask, don’t tell.” Particularly disturbing is the visit of the soldier to his now paralyzed ex-friend in intensive care in the hospital, and then the attempt of his commander (a field grade officer) to cover it up. This film, even though this subplot takes about a quarter of the time of the film, is one of the most important made about anti-homosexual attitudes in the military and the collective “warrior male” sociology behind these attitudes in the past ten years of “don’t ask, don’t tell”; but since it is little known, the film has been little mentioned in the gay press. The idea in he minds of some soldiers that gays make convenient practice fodder for practice aggression comes through. (One of them describes the incident as a “fluke” after it makes The Washington Post.) So do Mike’s grief and contrition, in scenes late in the film, where his teeth literally communicate his despair.

Also interesting in the scam artist Bench, played by Christian Zonts, a college dropout who will make his fortune the easy way, with pyramid schemes exploiting his frat brothers. He gets in trouble, of course, with the loan sharks and quickly becomes desperate, but his interpersonal charm and “always be closing” salesmanship comes across. In a typical cheesy telemarketing call he starts out with “How are you today,” then talks people into phony ID’s or signing over their bank accounts. People fall for it. The problem here is that Christian is gradually unveiled and he becomes only more and more likeable.

Then there is the homeless woman Anna played by Josette Murray-Ballo, for whom life is a shopping cart and a chance to see pretty lights one more time. She bails a young teen out of trouble (played gently by Ben Fernchok), and he will invite her to his home for dinner, where he encounters unexpected prejudice.

There is the young woman Stacie dying of an aneurysm (facing a fate similar to the character Colin in TheWB’s Everwood) but trying to live in denial. And there is the party girl Kathryn playing off two male lovers, one apparently an ex-husband, who now takes hidden videos of their sex scenes. The film plays back these videos as a well to show off, incidentally and by comparison, the benefits of High Definition. The filmmakers are not afraid to show hairy men—“bears”—even heavy, in very intimate scenes, a far cry from the buffed look of a lot of the stars on daytime soaps.

The Green Line con man Bench draws some extra reviewing attention I think. Christian Zonts plays this role with a degree of satiric comedy, which sets him apart from the other four main characters. Is this because he wrote the part for himself? I get the impression that comedy is his forte, and, after all, good comedy sells (remember Anything Else?). Bench is a bit of the wild man risk-taker here, and Christian plays it kind of like Sam on Trump-a-Dump’s The Apprentice. There is a great scene where Bench has gotten away and teases his chaser from inside a Metro car, after the doors close. (They really will take a train out of service if a customer holds it open.) But, his own demise is then all the more brutal.

All of the outdoor scenes are on location, and use the Washingtin, DC metro area accurately. There are shots of the Capitol, Library of Congress, Rosslyn, Bethesda. The film gains a tense and sometimes menacing quality with quick black-and-white rapid-motion shots of the underground Metro, which has a chilling futuristic look when shot this way, even though it opened in 1976! (David Greenwalt’s UPN Show Jake 2.0 has a very similar accelerated time-lapse shot of an underground Metro for an attempted ricin attack!) This sense of intimacy and connection to setting is consistently much more serious in many independent films than in Hollywood, where there is often a preoccupation the shortest attention spans in a multiplex audience. Here, the characters are gradually revealed, literally stripped physically a little at a time, sometimes in scenes (as with the flatliner in the hospital) that have you making sure you are still seeing them; then the characters are imagined almost undressed on the Metro itself in dreamscape. This film builds up a tension that reminds me of the technique of Gus Van Sant in Gerry and Elephant, Minnesota filmmaker Jon Springer in The Hymens Parable, or even New Market’s surprise etude, Memento. One device to unite the characters is a homeless man accosting each of the five at some point in the film at a Metro station, giving them coins that could have come from Pirates of the Caribbean (Johnny Depp could have played this!), in each case sending the character into the last chapter of his terrestrial life.

The showing started with a brief Brainbox short or prelude (in regular MiniDV), which I wasn’t sure whether it was a preview or a symphonic introduction to the film itself.

My own experience at this film presents a certain irony. I had to leave a few minutes early to catch the last Metro leaving Silver Spring (against the backdrop of CSX freight trains) back downtown (on the Red Line), on a bitter cold night (and the station is above ground!). Yet, at the last minute, the couple that I had sat by got on the Metro car (they had chanced it) and told me the last few minutes of tragedy. I barely made the connection to the last Orange Line home (after almost going the wrong way), when a passenger, a young teen, would have an apparent medical emergency. I would spend the ride trying to communicate with 911 desperately from a cell phone blocked by the tunnels. After getting out at 12:30 AM at Ballston, I would have to do a “Clark Kent” through dark suburban streets to get home. Lines keep crossing.

I did, however, get the DVD to see the complete ending. The DVD presents an alternate beginning that reveals the denouement, but the film is stronger as is, with the last five days of each character going in time sequence.

For more about the film see this link.

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