Appellate Judge Rob Lineberger delves into the twisted labyrinth that is "no budget" independent cinema.
Human life, like the path of running water, can be suddenly and unpredictably…BENT.
There are big-budget films like Spiderman 2 that break box office records and wow us with special effects. Then there are low-budget films like Girls Will Be Girls or Eating Raoul or Pi that make a splash with edgy plots and snappy dialogue. The final category is no-budget films, films that are made with six-, five-, or even four-digit budgets. These are the films that you would make with a video camera, some light bulbs, tin foil, duct tape, and a handful of your best friends. You might shoot them in your own house or in a field outside. Your props might be as simple as a folded-up piece of paper and a wine glass. But how good, really, could such films be? The Bent trilogy seeks to answer that question.
Facts of the Case
The Bent trilogy is a three-disc collection featuring ten short films by director Jason Santo and producer Roman Berman. They vary widely in terms of genre, style, and quality, but each shows a different side of no-budget filmmaking. The films are primarily character-driven and laden with plot twists. Each film is accompanied by a lengthy interview with Jason Santo, who discusses challenges inherent to independent filmmaking.
Let's get one thing straight right out of the gate. If you compare Bent with big-budget cinema, or even low-budget films from larger studios, the differences will be obvious. The actors are unknowns with little film experience. The sets are apartments or streets that don't offer much in the way of explosions or laser beams. There are occasional technical gaffes. With respect to Santo and crew, the competition for Bent is more along the lines of community theater productions or Wayne's World-esque pirate broadcasts: regular people with no studio backing who go out on their own to make a creative work.
That Bent continually invites comparison to Big-Budget filmmaking is a testament to the quality of work achieved on this DVD set. From the opening menu animations to the creative title sequences, from the ambitious plots to the voluminous extra content, Bent shows a dogged adherence to professional standards. In an era where DVD release after DVD release contains the film, a trailer, and a pat on the butt, such attention to detail is refreshing.
Bent doesn't rely heavily on special effects. The short stories here follow the lead of films like The Devil and Daniel Webster, a story that deals with a supernatural subject but does so with a minimum of fuss. The visual style is achieved through classic effects such as time-lapse photography, chiaroscuro, unique angles, and other low-budget techniques. This emphasis on the basics gives Bent a sophisticated air of restraint and highlights just how successful these techniques can be. On the other hand, Bent employs a healthy amount of computer postproduction to achieve multilayer effects that sell certain scenes (a woman reads a letter, and we see her face while the words scroll across the screen). The combination leads to an understated yet engrossing visual style.
Bent is certainly not without flaws. Most of the short films contain missteps that bring you back to the reality of their no-budget roots. By the same token, these films are encouraging because they prove that with a camera, a computer, and lots of careful planning, it is possible to make a cinematic statement that rivals the best films. For example, I would stand "The Dinner"'s lead Tina Krause, its cinematography, and its sensual soundtrack up against most any film noir. It wouldn't topple The Maltese Falcon by any stretch, but it would hold its own against many of them.
Although "The Dinner" is the set's most cohesive work, most of the other films in the set contain powerful moments surrounded by adequate glue. This may not sound like a ringing endorsement, but it is actually a feat to achieve a powerful moment. I've seen plenty of films go by without any. For Bent to provide so many powerful moments is a triumph in itself.
Given that these are very short films based on clever plot twists, detailed discussion of the plot isn't possible. Nonetheless, let's take a look at them one by one.
The main problem I had with "His Life" is that it walks and talks just like Grosse Pointe Blank. An inexplicable contrivance (the lead has always known that he would die on his 25th birthday) brings a reticent character (named Martin) back to his hometown. He isn't necessarily a bad guy, but he has done bad things. He gets into town and bumps into an effusive pal vaguely reminiscent of Jeremy Piven. Bad men follow him around. His mother has met a sour fate; Daddy isn't around. He looks up his old gal pal Jennifer (vaguely reminiscent of Minnie Driver) because, even though he walked out on her years ago without a word, he still loves her and wants to make it work. I'm all for homage if it is employed cleverly, but this one was too unfiltered for my tastes.
The film is sometimes too dark, curtailing any sense of detail in interior scenes. The shots of Martin in the car with Jennifer were distinguishable only by the reflection of light off of Martin's glasses frames; otherwise we have a difficult time seeing what is happening. On the other hand, some of the scenes employed clever overhead angles that created suspense. The music is a good fit for the film, reflective but with an undercurrent of impatience.
Certain scenes work well, such as the confrontation between Martin and
Cataldo. I can see what Santo and Berman were aiming for, but the pacing,
walking, and frequent Grosse Pointe Blank references soured me on the
This black-and-white silent film explores the chemistry among four friends. The group consists of two husband-wife pairs, but you get the sense that the true dynamic is more complex. When the couples meet for dinner, undercurrents immediately start rippling through the group. As the evening wears on, a convoluted but intensely passionate relationship becomes clear, and drastic measures are taken to protect it.
The artistic integrity in this piece is undeniable. Although it takes place in a rather plain apartment, "The Dinner" is rife with creative compositions and high-contrast shots that evoke a classic vibe. An emotionally sophisticated score perfectly heightens the tension onscreen. Because it is a silent film, "The Dinner"'s score is of utmost importance. Not only does it suit the mood of the film, it distinguishes itself as one of the best compositions I've heard recently. I'll be looking up Annie Brunson to hear more of her work.
The cast in "The Dinner" is pretty, but Tina Krause is breathtaking. Keeping in mind that Bent is a no-budget collection, Krause has the physical presence to compete with classic film noir sirens. (Santo mentions that she has a '40s bearing, and I have to agree.) Her inscrutable yet animated countenance will keep you guessing all the way through the film.
There are a couple of moments that take us out of the spell. The black-and-white cinematography seems to have been manipulated from a color print. Hints of desaturated color threaten the pure achromatic palette. On a completely different note, one action taken in the film is quite the cliché. On one hand you could call it a nod to '40s cinema, but even the director calls it "a device."
Nonetheless, when a short film produces such a great-looking, great-sounding
work anchored by a captivating cast, it is a home run by any standard. To
achieve this on such limited funds is even more impressive.
The short film that follows is cleverly composed and paced well, although the acting sometimes feels stilted. It is a delicate matter to criticize the acting when you are dealing with grassroots independent cinema. I've seen worse acting in some major studio releases, but the truth is that Hollywood has a large pool of talented actors to choose from. When you are working with less seasoned actors, such contrast highlights moments of flat delivery. It isn't that actors Roman Berman and Alecia Batson give poor performances—in fact, Alecia has several moments of real connection with the audience—it is just that the performances lack the touches that studio releases deliver, be it through more shots, a longer schedule, or other resources.
On the other hand, "Time Heals All Wounds" is technically sound. It looks good, competing with the image quality delivered by studios with much greater postproduction budgets. Dramatic shots heighten the sense of unreality in what would otherwise be humdrum circumstances. The soundtrack is once again sublime.
When the big revelation comes, it feels a bit rushed, although it throws the character Ellen into sharp relief. Batson carries this moment well, and her final scene is a tough physical trick to pull off. The story requires a little bit of suspension of disbelief from the audience, but the idea is creative and executed in a memorable way.
The director interview features nice poster art from up-and-coming
illustrator Deena Warner. Between composer Annie Brunson, illustrator Deena
Warner, and other creative personnel, Santo has surrounded himself with great
talent. Independent cinema is often a proving ground for future big names, which
is part of its appeal.
The rest of the short has its fair share of arresting camera compositions, such as when three profiles pop into the frame in a row, or when Sarah has a run-in with another character in the hallway. The balance of the film is well shot, although a couple of scenes could have used enhanced drama through more dynamic compositing. The soundtrack stands out yet again, making Bent one of the most nicely composed collections I've heard.
The story is frustrating at first because it is a direct riff on Brainstorm. The lead character relates a story about working in a lab that can record human emotional experience, and knowing the truth has caused him to be hunted. This was supposed to be the scene that the movie was centered around, and its being a direct reference to another film steals much of its impact. Making a direct comparison between your film's character and any role played by Christopher Walken is likely to favor Walken; the man is just too memorable. This is another example of Bent's penchant for following other films too closely. It always manages to break free into its own ground, but these moments are irksome. To his credit, Santo acknowledges this reference in the interview, which is something most directors wouldn't do.
Eventually, we learn that this fabrication is not the actual plot and that
the riff on Brainstorm was something of a lie. The last half of "In
A Sky With No Angels" is original, and therefore more interesting. The
characters of Paul and Sarah take on new definition, which is more authentic.
With a haggard lead performance, Jason Santo reveals an intensity that reveals
some of the creative energy behind the Bent trilogy.
• "More Than Money's Worth"
Less successful are the overacting trio of buffoons who make the classic
mistake of affecting phony accents. Their hijinks are mildly entertaining but
nothing to write home about, until we get to the "date prep" montage,
which provides a sustained burst of real laughs. This momentum carries us
through the end of the film (and thus the boxed set), which leaves us with a
warm fuzzy feeling. It is an unexpected but fitting end.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
If you look this set up on Amazon, you might get the wrong info. The Bent trilogy is not a gay-themed play by Martin Sherman, FYI.
The extras on this set include an extensive set of interviews with Jason Santo. You can look at this one of two ways: Either Santo really likes to talk about his own work, or he is trying to give budding filmmakers some true insight into what goes into independent filmmaking. Although Santo does gush at times, he generally gives solid insights into the filmmaking process, covering techniques he used to build actor rapport or discussing how he worked with composers.
With a modest price, ten short films, and a full complement of extras, Bent is worth a look for those who are interested in no-budget filmmaking. Arresting visuals and poetic introductions add to the package, making Bent a cohesive body of work. The trilogy contains enough twists to keep you guessing and delivers occasional moments of real shock, tenderness, and emotion. How good can no-budget cinema really be? It is worth your time to find out.
This court has seen many jaded defendants pass through. Enthusiasm goes a long way in this town, and Bent has it. Not guilty!
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Tempe Video
• Series of interviews with Jason Santo aimed towards teaching you to make your own independent movie
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