Judge Gordon Sullivan's life is nonlinear and experimental.
An Experimental Thriller
Underground and experimental forms have often been kind to the socially marginalized. When there's no place at the mainstream table for women, African-Americans, or the non-straight, other kinds of forms may be more welcoming. Thus, we get the lesbian-focused experimental drama of The Owls, which teams up a number of famous lesbian filmmakers for a narratively complex film that draws on relationship drama, thrillers, and contemporary documentary to tell the story of a group of Older, Wiser Lesbians (or OWLs).
The Owls is the story of four women who were involved ten years ago in an indie lesbian band, called, appropriately enough, The Screech. Now, they're supposed to be older and wiser, but Iris (Guinevere Turner, Go Fish) can't leave drugs and alcohol alone, while her ex, MJ (V.S. Brodie, Go Fish), can't leave Iris alone. Then there's Lily (Lisa Gornick) and Carol (director Cheryl Dunye), a couple who aren't getting along despite their attempts to have a baby. When a pool party goes wrong and a younger lesbian ends up dead, the four enter a pact to keep it a secret. Things are sort of back to normal when Skye (Skyler Cooper) shows up and decides to stick around to trade help around the house for a roof over her head. With her in the women's lives, the past won't stay buried forever. If that weren't enough, alongside the non-linear presentation of this plot, director Dunye intersperses interview material with the dramatic plot to create a unique blend of fiction and fact.
The Owls is many things. It is a thriller, in the vein of similarly nonlinear films like Memento, where the fun is knowing that something awful has occurred while not knowing exactly how it will play out for the characters. Unlike Memento, The Owls goes for a more documentary aesthetic. The film has a fairly lo-fi feel to it, which is almost certainly caused by the budget, but rather than letting it be a liability, Duyne and crew turn it into a positive force. The less-than-stellar image quality and handheld camera work create a strong sense of intimacy. The documentary moments also contribute to this sense of intimacy, and reveal what The Owls is also about: lesbian cinema.
Thanks largely to the documentary aesthetic (along with the fact that both Guinevere Turner and Cheryl Dunye are lesbian actresses and writer/directors), The Owls is a film that tries to be as much about lesbian cinema and activism as much as it is about its characters. By taking on the subject of OWLs, the film has a chance to comment on the queer music and activism scenes, and allowing the actresses (who may or may not still be "in character") to discuss the making of the film, their own performances, and queer politics in general forces the viewer to consider the relationship between cinema and politics, especially in the lesbian world. This combination makes The Owls interesting beyond any sort of success or failure the narrative itself might have on an individual viewer.
If the film has a fatal flaw (and I'm not sure it does), it's that the thriller aspects of the narrative don't get enough screen time. At 66 minutes, The Owls is a lean, experimental machine that builds to a satisfying climax. However, I'm left with the nagging feeling that a few more scenes could have ratcheted up the tension to even great heights, filling out the narrative and giving the ending a bit more oomph.
Sadly, the DVD does not quite live up to the potential demonstrated by the film. The transfer itself does a decent job with the material; this is a lo-fi film and the transfer reflects that with ease, maintaining the low-budget look. The stereo audio keeps everything audible, including the excellent music choices, but subtitles would have been appreciated. Extras, though, are where the disc disappoints. The feature is only 66 minutes long, and the extras include a couple of text screens about the filmmaking collective Duyne is involved in, a few trailers for the feature-length documentary on the making of The Owls, and a DVD-ROM accessible press kit and screenplay. Considering the fact that the film is so short and a feature-length documentary exists, it feels like a huge tease to have a pair of trailers for it without including the doc itself. The box also mentions "Cast & Crew Biographies," but I couldn't find them.
The Owls is an interesting experimental feature, and should be sought out by anyone with an interest in independent and lesbian cinemas. However, due to the short feature length and lack of extras, it's hard to recommend anything other than a rental.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: First Run Features
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