Movie Review: 2015 Chicago Underground Film Festival: Shorts Reviews: Echoes & Bite Radius
The great thing about underground films these days is that they are the last and final place where cinema can still be mysterious. They are the antidote to today’s mainstream movies that, on all technical fronts — from the scriptwriting to the CGI effects — craft nitpickishly logical worlds down to the nano pixel, allowing audiences to leave the magic of their own imagination at home when they go to the theater.
For the past 22 years, the Chicago Underground Film Festival has been programming films — both shorts and features — that miraculously asks audiences to bring their own imaginations with them to interact with the imagery conjured up by cinematic magicians. At the fest’s most recent edition on May 13-17, 2015, two extremely different short films perfectly typify the kind of enigmatic cinematic experience that make the viewing of underground movies so invigorating.
Echoes, by Winnipeg-based filmmaker Jaimz Asmundson, is the stunningly gorgeous film that opened the entire festival on May 13. The film is a heady mix of swirling colors and mostly unidentifiable abstract images crafted through a variety of cinematic techniques, such as video projection and 16mm film hand processing. Visually, the film is just stunning.
Although the film’s imagery is heavily abstracted, there is a subtle story narrative at their progression, especially as how what is on screen is paired with the soundtrack. The film begins with the title flashing onscreen and blurred out by red flares and what appears to be overexposed film burns. Soon, a cooler blue palette settles in and mixes back with the red and a variety colors sliding, crawling and illuminating hidden shapes, forms and writing.
The soundtrack — designed by Asmundson’s wife and frequent filmmaking collaborator, Karen — is also a swirling, hypnotic wave of industrial and natural sounds. For the first minute or so, this airy blend of audio waves is all we hear until a woman — whom we never see on screen — begins recounting a haunting story of a bizarre dream in which her mother dies and the headless body is abandoned at an urban bus shelter. The narration is also presented in an unemotional manner by actress Tamara Gorski and her voice is processed with a hollow echo effect.
The cumulative effect of audio and image is reminiscent of early ’70s psychedelic horror flicks, such as the dreamy classic Let’s Scare Jessica to Death (1971). This is a successful tactic of Asmundson who has combined art cinema with exploitation vibes, such as in his previous film The Magus. As Echoes progresses, the film does begin to focus on at least one concrete visual detail: The prostrate body of woman, which eventually ties together the narration and images.
By the end of the film, we at last understand that Echoes is a deeply personal film, a meditation on the fanciful swirl of memories that floats through our brains. The film is indeed a tribute to Asmundson’s own late mother, which further makes Echoes a perfect companion piece to The Magus, which celebrated the filmmaker’s father. (Watch The Magus online.)
On the other end of the underground spectrum is Bite Radius, a disturbing modern neo-noir by director Spencer Parsons. Completely unlike Echoes, Bite Radius has a very straightforward plot and character driven narrative. However, this isn’t to say that the film doesn’t have it’s own unconventional brand of mysteriousness because it indeed has that in spades.
Bite Radius essentially takes place in a single location, the apartment of a young bachelor, Peyton (Trevor Dawkins) who wakes up one morning to find a young woman lying in his bathtub with her brains blown out. Whether or not he shot her, he can’t quite remember. But, he tells his female friend Nicole (Sophie Traub) about the corpse, so she rushes right over to have sex with Peyton and to help dispose of the body.
It would be a mistake to describe Peyton and Nicole as cold-hearted killers as that sort of implies that they have, at the minimum, some kind of heart. Instead, they are completely soulless creatures. They are beyond selfish as they seem not to have any sense of the self. Their existence has no function, no reason, no intention.
The opening title card of Bite Radius informs us that the film is based on a true story and that, in many ways, does not seem surprising given where our culture is these days. Parsons — who also co-wrote the script with Aaron Leggett and Mark Smoot — provides no explanation, motive or backstory for his characters’ lack of basic humanity.
Parsons keeps a frigid emotional distance from Peyton and Nicole. They are not glorified. They are not vilified. They are not sympathetic. They are not pathetic. The only commentary placed on their personality comes from the film’s title itself and the documentary series on sharks playing on the TV in the background. Also in keeping with the shark theme, the moody noir cinematography by Drew Daniels infuses Peyton’s apartment in blues, purples and, of course, reds, giving the location an underwater feel.
Structurally, Bite Radius evolves like a traditional noir as the film’s central crime and its repercussions are slowly revealed. But Parsons upends the genre in two seriously significant ways. First, the male character, Peyton, is rendered impotent by his action, while Nicole develops an aggressive sexual appetite, which is a total reversal of traditional noir gender roles.
Secondly, and more seriously, is the film’s exceptionally narrow emotional entryway into the story. There is no possible way to relate to the two main characters. There is no sense of justice to be properly served. There isn’t even any identification with the victim other than her being an abused corpse.
The only emotional connection to be found is by the grating pop song ringtone of the victim’s cell phone, which goes off numerous times by the victim’s mother calling to locate her daughter. It is an ingenious device that periodically reminds the audience of the sad loss of life without it being verbally mentioned or drawn attention to by someone on screen.
Like with Echoes, Bite Radius harkens back to a style of filmmaking where a character’s actions didn’t have to always be explained. That style has all but disappeared from the cinema, except mostly in the underground.