Saturday, December 31, 2011
#123: Cutting Moments (Douglas Buck, 1997)
Note: Cutting Moments is available on DVD with two other Douglas Buck short films, Home and Prologue, under the title Family Portraits: A Trilogy of America.
A quick Internet search for Cutting Moments reveals several bootleg and foreign region DVD covers and posters that, aside from the official Family Portraits cover, do the film a disservice. Some feature grinning, maniacal goofballs (who aren't even in the film) holding drills, chainsaws, and bloody knives. In addition to having nothing to do with the film, these covers look more like straight-to-video schlock or advertisements for small town haunted houses staffed by Jaycees, Lions Club, or Moose Lodge members. Even more damaging, these covers have blurbs promising that Cutting Moments will be the most shocking/sickest/most disturbing film you will ever see. This promotional gimmick invites viewers to disagree and turns the film into a carnival sideshow. Cutting Moments is disturbing and contains some extreme, unflinching violence, but the film's tone is quiet, reserved, and distanced and is far from the freakout gorefest promised by many of the promotional materials.
I wish Rue Morgue had included the entire Family Portraits triptych in addition to Cutting Moments because it shows a filmmaker growing in complexity, confidence, ambition, and narrative and visual skill and toning down the immaturity and need to shock. The shorts also comment on and complement each other, turning three shorts made in different years into one cohesive piece. Plus, Larry Fessenden's in the last section, and I love that dude. I want to write about the whole shebang, but instead I'll just urge you to rent it. Despite its pompous subtitle (A Trilogy of America), it's a strong, unique, and subtle work (other than four or five minutes of pretty intense violence).
So, Cutting Moments. The most shocking film in the history of the world. The sickest movie since The Care Bears Movie. The most disgusting thing this side of a Long John Silver's menu. Etc. Ignoring all that shit and concentrating on what Douglas Buck is doing renders that kind of hyperbole irrelevant. Buck's film is carefully composed, structured, and arranged, and its gradual movement into violence is mostly earned and presented in the same detached, careful style as the rest of the short. Buck avoids needless exposition and lets his detailed images and their juxtapositions tell the story. Buck has a natural filmmaker's talent for shot composition, framing his actors and their possessions within both their domestic and landscape settings in ways that make the ordinary cinematic and special. Window blinds become ominous alien beings claustrophobically controlling physical space. A man on a couch watching baseball on a television becomes an embodiment of depression, alienation, and detachment. These compositions are not heavy-handed or exaggeratedly stylized past the point of ordinary human experience. Buck doesn't judge his characters. He watches them, subtly controlling their environment but allowing them freedom and space to live within it.
Cutting Moments tells a bare bones story about a small family in Long Island. Things aren't right. The wife and mother (Nicca Ray, daughter of director Nicholas Ray and dancer/choreographer Betty Utey, and credited here as Nica Ray) is like a mistreated family pet; nervous, hesitant, careful, and wounded, she is afraid of her husband and son while desperately anxious for love and affection from them. The husband and father (Gary Betsworth) is a hollowed-out husk, detached to the point of non-existence, monotone and empty. The young boy (Jared Barsky) also seems hollowed out, lost in himself, unable to connect with either parent. There are some hints of sexual abuse from the father to his son, and mention of a lawyer's phone call about the possible removal of the son from the home. The wife unsuccessfully attempts to reignite some affection and passion into the marriage, but has to resort to unconventional means when her traditional attempts are ignored. In this and his other shorts, Buck knows that the family fucks you up and tends to disintegrate over time, but he also knows how strong those familial connections are and how they determine who we are and what we do.
So, yeah, this movie is not a laff riot, and its four minutes of intense violence are pretty hard to watch. (My wife, usually up for any cinematic atrocity, had her head buried in her hands for most of this chunk of the film and I almost joined her.) The special effects for this scene were supervised by the legendary Tom Savini and created by two employees of his effects company. I think the scene does go on a bit too long, and I would have cut the final portion taking place in the bedroom, which seems like a sop to the lovers of torture and mutilation movies or the immaturity of a young filmmaker suddenly afraid of the emotional terrain he'd skillfully set up. (Though I may need to reconsider my judgments.)
My misgivings aside, this is an impressive work for such a then-new filmmaker. Buck is a guy with a fully formed visual style. If the extreme violence is not your bag, I urge you to check out the other two shorts, particularly Prologue. In all three, Buck comes across as a thoughtful, original writer/director, though he does share some affinities with other independent films and filmmakers. Tonally and compositionally, I was reminded of other films about family and the intersection of emotional and physical violence, like Buddy Giovinazzo's Combat Shock, Jon Jost's Sure Fire, Atom Egoyan's The Sweet Hereafter (particularly for Prologue), Larry Fessenden's non-overtly politicized work (Habit, Wendigo), and David Cronenberg (in style, his early work - in subject matter, the more recent films). Like all these filmmakers and films, Buck finds a detached, clinical way to present intensely emotional material and in doing so treats this material with the non-histrionic, unsentimentalized approach it deserves. Buck has a new film tentatively scheduled for release this year. His only other feature is a 2007 remake of De Palma's Sisters, starring Chloe Sevigny and Stephen Rea. Has anyone seen it? I had no idea it existed until I did a bit of Internet research into Buck's career. Weird. Whatever that film's merits or lack thereof, his Family Portraits trio of films is something to see.