Judge Gordon Sullivan uses a dowsing rod to seek wellness.
"This is not a film. This is a video ritual. Watch and receive…"
With those faithful words, Seeking Wellness: Suffering Through Four Movements begins. The operative word here is certainly suffering, since each of the four video pieces that comprise Seeking Wellness examine some facet of the beautiful diamond that is human misery. More importantly (at least for you, dear reader) is that watching Seeking Wellness is itself an act of suffering. While I can admire the intent, and even some of the execution of this "video ritual," the final project doesn't reveal enough about humanity to make it worth sitting through 90 minutes of this stuff.
The four "movements" of Seeking Wellness are as follows:
• "Cup of Friendship, Shrine of Scars" allows us to watch two men break into a hospital and terrorize the staff and incapacitated patients via surveillance footage.
• "Daddy's Time" shows us the horrifying effects of abuse as a father shares his darkest secrets with his children on Christmas Day.
• "Final Project" takes us inside a psychology classroom doing their final projects, one of which is a video about a man who is trying to give himself cancer.
• "Malignant Love" is the story of a man who tries to give himself cancer because he's failed at everything in life, including a recent romantic relationship.
The best thing I can say about Seeking Wellness is that it must have sounded really good on paper. The idea of telling a story through surveillance cameras isn't new, but it's also not been mined to the fullest extent possible. Using old family photos and the Christmas holiday to depict a father's breakdown is similarly not new but worth exploring. I don't want to give away too much of "Final Exam," but suffice it to say that it's particular theatrical leanings at least start out interesting, and I much admire the idea of a guy giving himself cancer in "Malignant Love."
The problem is all this material is squandered. The surveillance cameras show us two guys breaking into a ward and just destroying stuff, raping and killing on their way. I guess it's a commentary on voyeurism and helplessness, but the scenes depicted are too horrifying to ignore but not developed enough to create an emotional connection. It's made all the more frustrating by the feeling that there might be a good idea buried somewhere in the short running time. Similarly, "Daddy's Time" can't quite navigate the horror/identification divide. In this short the Daddy of the title reveals that he was sexually abused by his uncle and then puts a gun in his mouth in front of his children. If it's meant to be drama, it's too over-the-top to elicit sympathy, but if it's supposed to be black comedy the timing is all wrong. Instead, the short occupies a weird ground between being really uncomfortable and really boring. "Final Project" gets some points for staging a kind of inmates-running-the-asylum version of classroom presentations, but the climax takes way to long and ends rather predictably.
The short I have the most sympathy for, and am most disappointed by, is "Malignant Love." The premise of a guy giving himself cancer as a way to prove his love and show he's not a failure sounds like something straight out of the best fiction of the last twenty years (in fact, it bears a passing resemblance to Katherine Dunn's Geek Love). Unlike the other shorts, though, rather than going too far, "Malignant Love" feels like it stops just as it gets going. I'm not sure it could be a narrative feature, but I wanted more of the character and his situation. Sure, some of the scenes could have used a bit of trimming, but overall this short deserves some expansion.
Seeking Wellness gets a decent DVD release for what it is. The full-frame video transfer looks like consumer-level video, which is almost certainly what the source was. That means colors are muted, blacks aren't consistent, and detail isn't particularly strong. I suspect that's the point, though. The Dolby Digital stereo track keeps the dialogue audible and does a fine job with the music. The only extra is a 30-second trailer that runs all four shorts simultaneously sped up so you can see each one in its entirety. It's actually a pretty funny and clever way to sell the movie.
In defense of Seeking Wellness I can kind of see underground fans of disaffected media latching on to the voyeuristic elements and sick ideas, turning this into a bit of a cult film. Also, the music that plays under much of "Cup of Friendship, Shrine of Scars" and "Final Project" has a cool, noise-rock drone kind of a thing working for it. Even when the visuals weren't wowing me, I often enjoyed the clang and thunder of the music.
Seeking Wellness: Suffering Through Four Movements is an underground kind of DVD release, and fans of dark experimental media might find enough in its four shorts to make it worth a rental. For the vast majority of film fans, though, this is a disc to be avoided much like suffering.
I'm glad the suffering is over: Guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Sepulchral Voice
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