Monday, October 05, 2015

Sequence: Four Short Stories

One Under 30:
James Alexander Warren's 4-Short Anthology

James Alexander Warren's (aka Alex Warren's aka @alericanflag's) collection* is an anthology film, an extended-play, a slim volume — four short films adapted from four short stories written by Warren a couple years back. The title speaks to the sketch-like nature of the individual pieces and, simply, to the back-to-back linking of one 'sequence' to the next. It carries another suggestion: "Sequence: Four Short Stories" is the sort of title you might find attached to what's called an avant-garde or experimental film, and it invites the viewer both to identify elements common to the four sequences, or, what's more, to accept their sequencing as, to use a-g lingo, "chance".

What is the purpose of the short film? — which I'll propose as 'its own form' only on the basis that it's certainly considered such by the majority of global festivals when they're soliciting submissions or programming lineups. Is the short film — lasting, say, under 25 minutes — a calling-card? Neither Warren, nor his young-and-indie contemporary Dustin Guy Defa, wholly conceive it as such. Warren: Shorts can be assembled into a single collection. Defa, whose body of short work was just presented in sequence at a single screening in the New York Film Festival: "I make short films to figure out the kinds of features I want to make." Shorts can be financed discretely across time; can be slipped in at the front-end of a big-screen feature presentation; can be uploaded to online platforms that accommodate the bite-sized (pay-to-stream/DL, gratis embed); can be assembled sequentially into a feature-length or overt anthology and, provided no out-standing contractual obligations with the principals exist, can be sold to a distributor or distribution platform as a single license.

The stories of Sequence are set in and around Jackson, Mississippi, but don't belong to that category of U.S. Southern cinema a friend of mine told me he can't stand because so much of it "is about guys with their shirts off."

*Although Sequence has screened publicly at Cinefamily, Anthology, and seven other venues, Warren currently plans to present the stories separately.


I: Yazoo Women

The 'sketch'-est of the four stories, Yazoo Women involves three guys transporting a John Deere riding mower back to its owner from the yard where it underwent repair. They set out in daylight and arrive in the evening at the owner's house only to find the scene is a gals-only happy-divorce party. The host invites the guys inside, and a one-sided-awkward collision takes place between the three blue-collar/odd-job Gen-Y'ers-or-Millennials and the done-up blouse enthusiasts who gyrate beneath the pulsing party bulbs. A 180-degree pan reveals the yardbirds as wallflowers, before a few of the revelers coax them to engage, the music transforming from uptempo kitsch to a late-night soul-jam. Unforeseen couples embrace swaying in languid slow pans across turning torsos and chins nestled in shadows between heads and shoulders. The fluidity of the camerawork (operated by Azod Abedikichi and Robby Piantanida, who plays one of the guys alongside Arrmon Abedikichi and Dau Mabil) and sound-design (Chase Everett) sets a precedent for the other three stories: voice-over and sounds that lap over cuts (which at times can also, conversely, be dry, abrupt, and ironic), music tracks that mix one-into-the-other, ambient aural interludes between the sequences; most of the 'stories' can be apprehended with eyes closed, like radio- or podcast-plays à la Joe Frank...


II: Dreamscaping

As in all four of the shorts, another car-ride, another party. Jamie (Jamie Granato) and Roshada (Chasity Williams) lover-spat after the latter's ex, Jake (Jermaine Harden), ran into her at a grocery store and landed a lip-kiss. Jamie thinks Jake's purporting to play for the Harlem Globetrotters is bullshit. The couple head to Jake's house-party later that night, and Jamie confronts the 6'5" host. A coda finds a new-age therapist guiding Jamie through a lesson in "dreamscaping."

The lessons of Dreamscaping include economize totally, get in and get out, deliver a comic combination in every scene. Warren demonstrates himself a more than "capable" director of comedy, with more than "ample" gifts in timing the cuts and giving the actors their freedom to be funny. (Maybe in a few years we'll just shorthand him as JAW?) Jamie Granato's a more amped-up Kevin Corrigan, beleaguered and fearless. When he follows Jake through the crowd at the party, JAW's camera tracks from behind in a low-angle that ridiculously monumentalizes the Globetrotter; a high-angle in the ensuing shot-reverse-shot kitchen convo also brings much mirth. Ditto re: the copy of Cassavetes on Cassavetes in the background of (left jab) the therapist's office in this film which (right hook) does not aspire to replicate any po-faced Cassavetes stylistics. JAW's covered.


III: The Temperature of Father James Martin

"Temperature" as a slip for "Temptation" in this, the comic-dramatic crucible of the Sequence shorts, wherein Father Martin (David Aaron Baker, perfectly calibrating the character to every encounter), an Episcopal priest, hosts a dinner party for a group of friends on the occasion of dispersing the cremated ashes of deceased Robert. Father Martin chatting on his cell with his mother and father while practicing one-hand free-throws on the church basketball court (a single three- or four-minute shot with the camera craning from on high earthward before closing in on the character). Audio Japanese lessons in the car back from the liquor store before a suburban gang eggs the windshield. ("Pussy.") Swing between drunken emotions, reminiscences of the priest's and guests' dead friend, a chanced kiss, and a spine-tingling final shot.

A brilliant compact study, and the only modern American film to examine the priestly calling for what it so often is: a means of erecting defenses and mitigating the corporeal world.


IV: It's Never Cold in Vegas

Struggling actor Jeffrey (Thom Shelton) goes fuck-out for the role of a generic gangster at an audition inside a recording studio, while director Warren (credited as "Alan Warner") looks on from the booth and offers the suggestion: "Feel free to add your own spin to it." Afterward Jeffrey accompanies his wife Rayah (Akua Carson) to her gig as a party-clown at a children's library. (Nod of solidarity to Altman's Short Cuts [1993] and the Carver short-story source material.) One of the attending kids' dads chats Jeffrey up about what it's like to fuck his wife before a kid punches him in the dick. From there, it's off to a fundraising party for the film Jeffrey and his "beat-poet" friend Richard (Landon Whitton) are prepping to make, provisionally titled It's Never Cold in Vegas. In a full-circle to Yazoo Women Rayah and Jeffrey get drunk and slow-dance; Rayah blows across the lip of a beer bottle to make the sound of a ship's horn as waves lap at the soundtrack and the film cuts to their bathroom faucet. A grand tracking shot through the rooms of the couple's cavernous, labyrinthine life- and work-space/-loft suggests the internalized chambers of inspiration and experience within and by which art and life commingle. Jeffrey wheels a spotlight over and aims it at Rayah, regal at her decks, intones processed words over electronic hum. From a high shot, the camera pans upward. End-cut to black.

One senses It's Never Cold in Vegas as the most explicitly personal for Warren of the four works, and that in any case it's the one Richard Brody will praise most. Yet the sequence is the thing, and it grants us an early survey of the broad scope of Warren's concerns, proving the writer-director, moreover, talented enough to address the lot of them with eloquence and a cogency to match their complexity.


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