Monday, October 15, 2007

Take Three: 'The Sensation of Sight'

Editor's note: Take Three is a occasional feature at Roundtable Pictures in which Gina Carbone, Mike Gillis and Lars Trodson review the same current film.

The sensation of ‘huh?’
Slow and steady does not win the indie race this time

By Gina Carbone

Fitting that a film so focused on the question “why?” left me wondering the same thing. Why do so many independent films think they have to be slow and drawn-out to prove they’re serious? Why does trying to find meaning in life have to be so ponderous? Why is the line between enlightening and exasperating so easy to cross? Why do talented actors let themselves lapse into self-indulgence as long as it’s under the guise of “independent” or “quirky” or “artsy”?

The Sensation of Sight” is a big deal in New Hampshire because it was shot in Peterborough and stars Oscar-nominee David Strathairn. It’s huge for something like that to happen here and I wanted to like this movie so I could support it wholeheartedly. But from the first shot I could tell this film would try my patience and loyalty. That shot -- a man lies in a crumpled heap on the grass in front of a beautiful stone building as the fog rolls away -- lasts throughout the opening credits.

Odd that something called “The Sensation of Sight” would have so little interest in varying its visuals. The camera is usually fixed, lingering on the same point of view for lengthy, often quiet, scenes. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that; it’s a refreshing break from the frenetic pace of, say, “Bourne Ultimatum,” Strathairn’s last on-screen release. But that approach only works if the quiet scenes are insightful or moving. If not, it just makes the film feel distant and twice its actual length.

The main character, Finn (Strathairn), is a former English teacher who has a life crisis after a school tragedy. The film is broken up into a prologue, verses and an epilogue -- with various quotes from famous writers interspersed to add meaning. The tragedy pushes Finn to leave his wife and child in favor of selling encycloped
ias door to door (and searching for an understanding of “why”).

The prologue and any scenes with Finn’s wife (Ann Cusack) before the crisis are shown off-color -- a soft black-ish and white with focus on the faces. The story (although the film is never really tied to a traditional narrative) is told out of sequence. It starts on the ground and goes backward and forward but maintains a connection to a
series of other characters in the same small New Hampshire town.

My favorites are lonely mom Alice (the wonderful Jane Adams of the best kind of non-narrative indie, “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”); her friendless daughter, Ruthie (Cassidy Hinkle); and Dylan (Daniel Gillies), a well-meaning but pushy and irresponsible late 20- or early 30-something chatterbox.

The relationship between moody Drifter (Ian Somerhalder) and young Josh (Tony Swingle), with their desires for familial bonding, has potential but isn’t developed beyond two scenes (decent scenes, though, especially the guitar bashing; maybe it’s best they didn’t push that into a cliché). Finn’s neurosis, by contrast, is over
developed. I know I’m meant to sympathize with him, but instead I’m just frustrated.

Finn is not alone in frustrating me. The scenes between father Tucker (Scott Wilson) and daughter Daisy (Elisabeth Waterston) are especially momentum-killing, despite the engaging nature of both actors. The only thing that comes of that plotline is the idea that things have to be done in their own course. Reconciliation, acceptance -- that stuff can’t be rushed.

Remember the little smarty pants in “Jurass
ic Park”? Well Joseph Mazzello is all grown up now, playing a teen named Tripp who follows his tortured brother, Drifter, through the film. Tripp just hovers outside the action like a plot tease -- tag me in and I’ll liven up the story. But that doesn’t happen. In the film’s climax -- which seems to come out of nowhere -- Finn and Drifter share a deep, emotional moment that leaves them in tears and is clearly supposed to be a kind of revelation, though it left me scratching my head, unmoved. If I’d gotten a chance to learn more about Drifter or Tripp instead of Finn’s search for “why” maybe I’d feel something.

David Strathairn is a wonderful journeyman actor and it’s great to see him make the best of everything from “Brother from Another Planet” in 1984 to “Good Night, and Good Luck” in 2005. He’s up for anything and God bless him for doing this and adding his name as producer, too. But not every indie is a lightning bolt straight from the God of Truth. Earlier this year we had something close to that in Sarah
Polley’s “Away from Her.” There wasn’t a forced or pretentious moment in that. Nothing that didn’t belong or contribute.

This is writer/director/co-producer Aaron J. Wiederspahn’s first film and I have no doubt it will find an appreciative audience -- people mo
re patient and, perhaps, open than I. People who don’t wish the film could be at least 20 minutes shorter and tighter, with a focus on Alice, Ruthie and Dylan and maybe the others as background players. If I had the sensation of 20/20 hindsight, that might be a movie I’d see.

'Sensation of Sight' Fails To Illuminate

By Lars Trodson

The first rule for dramatists is this: show us the action, don’t tell us. In the New Hampshire-produced feature film “The Sensation of Sight”, we are told, not shown, almost everything. For more than two hours. This is a strange tactic for a film that calls itself “Sensation of Sight.”

The film, which was made in Peterborough, NH back in 2005, had not been seen by New Hampshire audiences until it debuted at the newly christened New Hampshire Film Festival in Portsmouth this past weekend. It was supposed to have premiered last year at the Festival, but it was never shown. Judging by what we saw this year, it just might not have been ready.

If you are going to make a movie about the meaning of existence, and the nature of relationships and the responsibilities we have to each other as human beings, you better have something to say that is either fresh or original. It takes more than simply being a fan of New Yorker short stories and the writings of philosophers. Aaron J. Wiederspahn, the screenwriter and director, here in his maiden effort, seems to have processed and reflected on every philosophic passage he has ever read, and imbued each with such equal importance that they all needed to be stuffed into his already over-crowded screenplay.

“A big monstrosity of nothingness,” is how one character describes existence. Or: “My light went out a while ago.” Or: “You get used to the losses.”And: “Waiting is the cursed part of life.” Or, while looking at a guitar: “I always wanted to learn to play, but never did.” And, finally, as a character looks at a church: “So this is where God lives.”

Philosophers tend to be ruminative, if not rheumy, people, and David Strathairn’s Finn -- who is ostensibly at the center of this story -- turns out to be a little bit of both. Strathairn is a fine, if not terribly weighty actor, and in “Sensation of Sight” he uses his best qualities -- a kind of weedy, hesitant intelligence -- to great advantage. But because of the way the script is constructed, we don’t know if Finn is damaged, mentally challenged in some way (is he an idiot savant?), or…or…?

That same question could be applied to almost every character in the film. It is easy to see what Wiederspahn and the producers were after: a film full of quirky, intelligent, and sympathetic characters that create, cumulatively, their own alternative universe. In movies, this is a universe that tends to look familiar, but where the rules of real-life rarely apply. When done right -- think of Paul Newman in “Nobody’s Fool” or any of the comedies of Preston Sturges -- we’ll let the vagaries of these slightly off-kilter worlds wash over us with satisfaction and ease.

But since this screenplay tends to be oblique when it should be straightforward, and blunt when it ought to be poetic, we’re frustrated by our inability to understand the characters the moviemakers struggle to get us to know so well. We rarely know how people are connected, and why we ought to care.

Everybody, not just Finn, certainly appears to be damaged. There is Dylan (Ian Somerhalder), who is in town to see his ex-mate and their little daughter. He’s a petty criminal, we guess, who is doing some sort of community service by washing a police car. Dylan also has a grudge against Finn, but it is never really fully explained. Dylan is the supporting character we meet first, and we think the main plot will involve him, but he’s very much secondary to the meaning of it all.

While doing his penance, Dylan meets the brooding Drifter (Daniel Gillies), who is more important to the plot than we originally think.

Then there’s Dylan’s ex-mate -- I don’t know if she’s a girlfriend, or wife, and what this subplot has to do with anything is anybody’s guess -- who is played, in the best performance in the film, by Jane Adams. (I have to admit, I had to look up all of the names of the characters on IMDb, because they did not register with me when I was watching the film.)

There’s Tucker, played by the great Scott Wilson, and his daughter, Daisy, (Elizabeth Waterston, who is lovely and affecting), who live together. The scene where Daisy shaves Tucker’s face with a straight-edged razor, and Tucker playfully tries to dab a little shaving cream on her face, isn’t charming; it’s creepy. There’s a scene where Finn sits down to lunch with Tucker and Daisy, and she serves a non-existent soup out of a pot. Father and daughter both seem to be in on the ruse, and Finn does, too, but what does this masquerade mean? I asked people if they understood how this odd bit of pantomime fit into either the plot or the character development, and no one at the screening got it, either.

Maybe Wiederspahn is hinting at something darker in their cloistered relationship. But it one thing to ambiguous in an effort to create mood, and something else entirely to be simply confusing.

Adding to the confusion, at least for me, was the production design. This is a world with no cell phones -- a character uses a Princess phone and there are scenes at a pay phone. The squad car they wash for community service looks right out of the 70s, but there is a late model State Police car right behind it. No one drives a car, very few people seem to be employed, and the main character, Finn, drags around a box of Encyclopedia Brittanica’s door-to-door on a red Radio Flyer wagon. Someone perhaps can explain what all this means.

I got the feeling the screenplay once incorporated the notion that the stories were all dreams, and that it was an idea later abandoned. I don’t know.

It was also frustrating that the producers seemed determined to show Peterborough, a lovely, thriving, arts-rich place, as another run-down New Hampshire mill town. Peterborough is never explicitly named in the story (we can see the logo on a police car and on a police uniform, but that’s it), but all we see are a bunch of boarded-up buildings, trash-laden loading docks, and a town that looks like it is generally a lonely, unsophisticated place.

New Hampshire needs to be better served than that by filmmakers who come here to make movies. And perhaps it is time for independent movies to slough off their self-imposed burdens of quirkiness and deep-thinking soulfulness, and just shoot for something that resembles everyday life.

Start making sense ... please

By Michael Gillis

Here’s a movie I wanted to succeed.

“The Sensation of Sight,” which screened Oct. 13 at the Music Hall during the seventh annual New Hampshire Film Festival, boasts some top-notch actors – David Strathairn, Scott Wilson, Jane Adams and Ann Cusack, to start – and was shot right here in my home state of New Hampshire.

And it’s a movie bankrolled by local dollars, not Hollywood gold.

Those are only a few of the reasons I was rooting for “The Sensation of Sight” when it wrapped in Peterborough, New Hampshire, over a year ago.

Sadly, it’s a mess.

There's a scene somewhere near the middle of this rambling, 2-hour and 13-minute exercise in high-school level philosophy where a family sits down to dinner, served by a female sibling. She ladles out soup but the pot is empty. Something is wrong, obviously, and the other diners accommodate their troubled kin by dipping their spoons into the empty bowls and taking sips of air. Why? What’s wrong? How did we get here? I have no idea.

All of “The Sensation of Sight” is like being served an invisible dinner. The director, Aaron Wiederspahn, lays out a smorgasbord of small-town characters and their woes, but, like Chinese food, we’re left starving a few hours later.

Strathairn plays Finn, a high school teacher thrown off track by a classroom tragedy. In his search for meaning, he abandons his family and sets out with a wagonload of encyclopedias, which he half-heartedly attempts to sell door to door. I’m guessing “The Sensation of Sight” was born of that image: a hatted, middle-aged man towing a child’s wagon across town. That image, of course, became the film’s poster. But the reason Finn embarks on this journey is not adequately explored or justified, despite the film’s length and pedestrian probe of Finn’s madness. I’m not sure why a man so deeply affected by a child’s tragedy outside of his home chooses to abandon his family as therapy. It’s a story I’d be willing to entertain, but … what is the story?

There are fine performances in “The Sensation of Sight,” but I could have cared less about these people. Part of the difficulty, I suspect, is a litany of clichés and uneven dialogue. There’s a scene between Scott Wilson, who plays Finn’s father, and his daughter, in which she says, “You’re really getting into this religion stuff, aren’t you?” The father replies: “I gather I am.”

I gather? Religion stuff? Forget the bad dialogue. What’s happening here?

Too much of “The Sensation of Sight” sounds like that, a script fumbling for authenticity but unable to find its voice.

We’ll see more from most of these fine actors, to be sure, and I do hope to see more mature work from Wiederspahn in the future. I just hope he chooses to pursue a sensation of sense.