Tuesday, August 15, 2006

A Steve Balderson Tragedy

How often do you visit the Morgue and find me trashing a movie? Almost never. Even rarer is the spectacle of me trashing an independent film. Indie films already have so much working against them it’s miraculous they even get made in the first place, which earns my automatic respect.

So it pains me to trash Steve Balderson’s Firecracker, a movie I saw at the Dobie in Austin last November, that’s now available on DVD. 20 minutes into Firecracker I came to a realization: Nothing that happens throughout the rest of this is going to get me to like it. Take that as you will throughout the remainder of this critique. The film lost me at hello.

On the other hand, this piece required far more effort than simply saying “It was a bad movie” and forgetting about it altogether. Perhaps my words are testament to Balderson’s work and maybe someday, in a particularly self-destructive mood, I’ll revisit Firecracker and see it in a different, more positive light. Roger Ebert gave it a whopping 3 & ½ stars, which I can only attribute to the notion that he was drunk, high or asleep as he viewed it (I wish I'd been any of the three during my viewing).

I appreciate deviations from the norm, and certainly that cannot be truer than in the realm of film where so much of the same is frequently displayed. There’s no question Firecracker deviates from the norm…unless you consider David Lynch films the norm, as do I. If so, you’ve already seen Firecracker in the various norms of Blue Velvet, The Elephant Man, Lost Highway, Twin Peaks, etc. I’m uncomfortable using a phrase like “rip-off” and yet it’s equally difficult to use the word “homage”. Firecracker bears heavy relation to Lynch’s ongoing oeuvre. It does not appear to contain anything original or anything that belongs to itself.

RE: Ebert’s review (click here to read it). Roger dislikes the bulk of Lynch’s work and I can’t reconcile his distaste for David with his praise of Firecracker. I love Ebert. I love Lynch. (Reconcile that, Ruediger!) Ebert’s portrait of the film is the movie I wanted to see but didn’t. Stranger still is the massive amount of positive press the film has received from other critics; Balderson is a salesman worthy of Dobbs himself.

If I met Balderson - without having any knowledge of his film - I’d likely get along with the guy like a house on fire. We’d have oodles of topics to geek out over together. After seeing Firecracker, however, this imagined meeting would consist of me squirming with unease, and Balderson wondering why I’ve got ants in my pants. No decent person I know enjoys telling a filmmaker face-to-face that their film sucked.

Firecracker tries to tell two intertwined stories.

The first involves a dysfunctional family: Mother Eleanor (Karen Black), eldest son David (Mike Patton, of Faith No More fame), younger son Jimmy (Jak Kendall) and a father whose name either wasn’t mentioned or I didn’t pick up on. The actor who plays him has a thankless role, as all he's required to do is be old and oblivious (sorta like the dad on Strangers with Candy but with slightly more movement). Eleanor meekly attempts to keep her boys from squabbling with a ho-hum, predictably Midwestern “the less said, maybe it’ll just go away” attitude. David is a world-class, violent asshole prick. Jimmy is a sensitive wannabe pianist. David doesn’t appreciate Jimmy...come to think of it neither did I, but more on that later.

The second story involves a traveling carnival and the freaks who inhabit it. The Enigma plays a key role, which comes across as pedantic as it reads. The show's main attraction is Sandra, a damaged singer (also played by Black). In charge of the weirdness is Frank, a nasty carnival barker (also played by Patton), who dresses like P.T. Barnum, but not on acid. So two of the four main characters are played by the same actors, which given the material isn’t intrinsically a terrible idea.

The storylines converge when both David & Jimmy develop very different obsessions with Sandra and the obsessions come to a head about 30 minutes into the picture. In all fairness I will not reveal precisely what happens.

There is a murder. There is an investigation. There is heartbreak. There is pain. There is betrayal. There is faith (no more?). None of these concepts are portrayed even remotely effectively as the picture languidly wants to hum along.

There are precisely three great performances in Firecracker...

1) Susan Traylor’s Ed, the cop investigating the murder. She is sexy without needing to be and true to the material without trying to be. If there’s any glue holding Firecracker together it’s Susan Traylor and she’s one of the few that darts between the two storylines. What’s unfortunate is the role requires her to show no emotion, thus giving the viewer no real hook. Ed is present only to investigate and in some ways is a narrator of sorts, but it isn’t a role a story like this can be built around (unlike Dale Cooper of Twin Peaks). Hope that Traylor gets plenty of work out of this. She’s an actress of whom we need to see more.

2) Mike Patton’s David. As atrociously horrendous as Patton’s performance as Frank is, he’s a godsend as David. Think Keanu Reeves in The Gift and you sorta get the idea.

3) Kathleen Wilhoite. You may not know her by name, but you’ve seen her in a dozen different things. Her screen time amounts to no more than five minutes, but she somehow grasps that the entire execution of Firecracker is laughable, and she’s inexplicably allowed to play it as such. Her big scene is with Traylor, so it perhaps goes without saying that it was the only scene that worked for me.

Indeed, the only possible redemption to be found in Firecracker is exemplified by Wilhoite’s performance. If the film is intended to be a black comedy, then maybe it’s brilliant. But the audience I saw it with viewed it as a serious drama, and I stifled guffaws on more than two handfuls of occasions so as not to potentially offend anyone around me.

The bad performances are countless - so countless that I will not count them. I will, however, single one out: Jak Kendall’s Jimmy. Jimmy should be the audience identification figure. He’s front and center for most of the film, and like Ed he’s one of the few that moves between the two storylines. But there’s absolutely nothing in his performance to make me give a toss about the kid. He seems doomed and I didn’t mind or care. I should’ve wanted the best for him as I did and do with Jeffrey Beaumont. He whines and pines and at one point an unspeakable act is committed against him and I didn't feel a drop of emotion.

Then there’s the matter of Karen Black. I LOVE old Karen Black movies...Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces, The Day of the Locust, Nashville & Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean to name but a few. Unfortunately neither of her characters is incredible and neither is dire. Sadly I never once got past the fact that she was acting. She didn’t move me, and that’s precisely what both Eleanor and Sandra need to do in order to help this picture work.

David Lynch didn’t become “DAVID LYNCH” overnight. He did it over years of trying different things and applying varied techniques and both blossoming and failing as an artist. For every perfect Blue Velvet there’s a fractured Dune. For every triumph, there’s a misstep. One cannot ape Lynch’s canon via pressing "blend" and expect success. It simply doesn’t work that way. Nor can one hide behind the veil of “artistic integrity” and believe that whatever shit is flung at the wall will stick. As filmmakers, we need our iconic heroes for inspiration - but we do not need to be them.

There may be a great movie somewhere inside of Firecracker, but it wasn’t onscreen for me to see. I believe Steve Balderson could still have a great movie (or two or three) inside of him, but he needs to find his own voice. He needs to explore issues that matter to him, rather than rehash ideas that speak to him. His flair for the visual cannot be disputed, but it’s not enough to carry this concept.

It’s also possible that someone who’s never seen a David Lynch movie wouldn’t view it as I did and in fact may find it a work of originality and genius. Am I trying to tell people to avoid Firecracker? Not necessarily. If you are a wannabe filmmaker with grandiose, artsy aspirations, and you care to take my thoughts in context, this film could be invaluable. It’s a virtual “How-Not-To” of indie filmmaking; an exercise in excess that illustrates the great divide between a simplistic, flawed screenplay and an obnoxious, overwrought finished product.

Read my followup interview with Steve Balderson by clicking here!