Judge Daryl Loomis doesn't remember who taught him the Guatemalan Handshake, but it gets him into all the hottest clubs.
Somebody has to do something.
I tend to dislike the style of film that movies like Slacker and Gummo have inspired. Showing the bizarre banalities of "real life," they often feel, as in the case with the former, disjointed and weird for weird's sake and, as in the latter, nihilistic and mocking of its subjects. The Guatemalan Handshake has many of the trappings of these films and, as a result, it took me a little while to get into it. Slowly but surely, however, I began to see the heart and optimism of Todd Rohal's debut feature. There is real beauty in lunatics living in the shadow of Three Mile Island.
Facts of the Case
A freak power outage changes the lives of the residents of a little Middle American town. Appliances start freaking out, dogs run away from home, and Donald (Will Oldham, Matewan) disappears without a trace. His pregnant girlfriend, Sadie (Sheila Scullin), his 10-year-old best friend, Turkeylegs (Katy Haywood), and his father, Mr. Turnupseed (Ken Byrnes), look for him while preparing to enter the town's big demolition derby.
Narrated by Turkeylegs, The Guatemalan Handshake is a strange ride through the mixed up lives of small town weirdoes. Told in disconnected vignettes, the story is not bound by time, jumping around to give the clearest vision of these characters, who are universally nuts. Turkeylegs is the only one capable of keeping things together long enough to relate these events, but she's not exactly average. Wise beyond her years, she fixes cars and gives her friends advice while making herself a massive dinner of chocolate bunnies filled with chocolate milk and covered in whipped cream. With Douglas gone, she spends most of her time with Mr. Turnupseed, who loves his son almost as much as he loves his orange wedge-shaped commuter car, and Sadie, who is sweet as can be but is damaged and, despite her obvious pregnancy, will only begrudgingly admit that she and Donald actually kissed. The ancillary characters are too numerous to mention, but each is uniquely bizarre and, all together, they create a charming mosaic of a barely functioning city, but with a population that is inherently good and struggling to find what is lost so they can be truly happy.
The vignette style unbinds the film from conventional storytelling, and Rohal is able to let his imagination run wild. While the characters are often charming and the tone is overwhelmingly positive (unlike some movies like this that I know), the style and attention to weird detail are the real delight of The Guatemalan Handshake. Amazingly, on a budget under a hundred grand, Rohal shot the film on 35mm stock instead of video, and it shows brilliantly in the richness of color and depth in the image. He places bright colors next to each other in the same frame, which gives it an almost Technicolor feel. Interesting shot composition and dynamic editing add to a look that belies its budget and makes for a visually arresting experience, even when the characters are at their most grating. It's the details, however, that make this film ripe for multiple viewings. The pink derby car called "Bitchkisser," the postings on the telephone poles, the wood-backed picture of Mr. Turnupseed with Willie Mays and the world's largest piece of bubble gum (that came from Ken Byrnes' personal collection) are only the tip of the iceberg. The Guatemalan Handshake is riddled with weird little touches that reward viewers' attention with more quality jokes than the dialogue contains.
This is only the third release from Benten Films and, if their work here is any indication, they are a distributor to watch. The two-disc set for this film is utterly fantastic, one of the best I've seen in a long, long time. The transfer is brilliant. The colors pop off the screen, and the picture quality and detail are perfect. There is no dust and no defect anywhere. The sound is equally good. Though the film is dialogue heavy, there is a significant amount of work given to the surround speakers, with excellent spatial effects that sometimes become disorienting. Then, we have the extras. On the first disc, along with the film, we have a commentary with Rohal and various members of the cast and crew. In it, they go a long way to point out the little details in the film and tell some very funny stories about the production. They are very proud of their work (and should be) without seeming pretentious or self-aggrandizing. Twelve deleted scenes, totaling over 30 minutes of added footage, give more of the same kinds of vignettes. For most, it is clear why they were removed. The one I wish was included is a music video with Will Oldham (who records under Bonnie "Prince" Billy and formerly as Palace Music) and Ken Byrnes (who released an album of his own compositions years ago). It's one of the few instances of father and son together. I'm a big fan of Oldham's music and would have loved to see it work in the finished picture. The second disc gives us a series of vignettes, totaling another 40 minutes, of behind-the-scenes footage that is mostly very funny and really shows how great a time they had making this film. Four more vignettes tell funny stories of the various festival showings of the film. Finally, the best extras on the disc are a series of six short films by the cast and crew, unrelated to The Guatemalan Handshake. They are of varying quality, but all are a lot of fun. The most impressive is "The Animated Egg" by 10-year-old Katy Haywood, about a knife-wielding Easter egg. It's hilarious, cute as hell, and fantastic that a fifth grader would have the gumption to put this together. This release is Criterion quality by an upstart label and, for a film as independent as The Guatemalan Handshake, this is rare.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The Guatemalan Handshake certainly will not appeal to all audiences because sometimes is does just seem weird for weird's sake. The non-linear, unstructured plot never really comes together and the dialogue is sometimes inconsistent with the characters' motivations. Though this is a very promising and polished debut from Todd Rohal, it really does feel like a first film. It is too self-aware of its style and often comes across as too earnest. The outbursts of random dialogue are grating and the characters' names are plain silly.
The Guatemalan Handshake is one of the most impressive debuts in years. I'm very excited to see what Todd Rohal has to offer next.
Not guilty. Benten Films is commended on their work presenting this film in
its best possible light.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Benten Films
• Director's commentary
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