A sinister serialized experiment in cinema
When someone says the words "experimental cinema" to you, what images come to mind? Andy Warhol using his static camera to capture eight immobile hours of the Empire State Building? Maybe you envision Yoko Ono filming a fly, in extreme close-up as it wanders around a nude body. Obviously, the short film format is replete with outsider idealism. But there are only so many ludicrous images—crashing and cascading watermelons seeming to dip and dive to an old minstrel song, or lesbians exploring their newly discovered body issues—that one can tolerate before imploding. The mini-movie showcase seems to be one of the last arenas for untried ideas. Yet there are still some who try to make the innovation play out for 90 minutes. When it comes to full-length excursions into the unknown or avant-garde, names like Kenneth Anger, the Kuchar Brothers, and their direct descendant, the trash-filth paragon John Waters, are always bandied about. More recently, cinematic explorers like E. Elias Merhige have created challenging spectacles (in Merhige's Begotten, a mostly silent, black-and-white fantasy, God disembowels himself to give birth to Mother Nature). And perhaps the most mainstream experimental work of neo-natal nightmares, David Lynch's midnight movie madness Eraserhead, has led to a career in mainstream mind-bending for the inventive auteur.
For the last couple of years, Chicago-based Split Pillow, a not-for-profit independent production company, has been trying different ways to meld improvisation with moviemaking to revitalize and reinvigorate the dying art of innovative cinema. Its annual Memorial Day event, known as The Challenge, brings together hundreds of writers, directors, and actors to spend the weekend making short films. And in 2003, Split Pillow embarked on its most ambitious project to date: an 11-chapter film, created by 11 different production companies, and filmed over an 11-week schedule. This trial by celluloid in the "Exquisite Cadaver" style of moviemaking utilizes that old parlor game's hit-and-miss approach to hopefully come up with something special. The result is called The Cliffhanger, and its success or failure depends a great deal on how accepting the viewer is of this genre experiment.
Facts of the Case
A mysterious videotape is at the center of a series of events for a group of interconnected characters. Nellie and her mother hire a hit man to kill Darius Fabrisio because of the cassette's contents. Lacey has involved her friend Nellie in some strange sexual games that have led to rape, blackmail, and maybe even murder. Darius wants his brother Anthony's help, but big brother is trying to turn over a new, non-criminal leaf. Iris, a fallen woman working for a creepy criminal named Charlie, also wants Anthony's assistance. She has the tape (and others) and wants to connect with the people behind it and the participants in it. Charlie and his underworld cronies want to seize the video and punish all associated with it. But will the true enigmatic head of the crime syndicate approve of Charlie's methods? The images trapped on the magnetic tape translate into fear and frustration as double-crossing and strange alliances help resolve this creepy, corporeal Cliffhanger.
Unless you are an aficionado of the French parlor game, you likely have not heard of the Exquisite Cadaver concept. It may be easier to explain using examples similar to it before jumping headfirst into experimental cinema. Most people understand the basic notion of improvised comedy, stemming from such stalwart groups as Second City and L.A.'s Groundlings. Making up dialogue and characters on the spot to address audience requests or current events, these freewheeling displays of wit and talent tightrope-walking are almost always called "dangerous" and "innovative." Similar techniques are used in other media. Writers like William Burroughs and David Bowie (for his lyrical ideas) use the cut-up technique to draft their verbal illusions. Using magazines, articles, poetry, or material they crafted themselves, these artists would take scissors to their text and slice and dice, coming up with cut-and-paste works of wounded imagery and compositional complexity.
Exquisite Cadaver works in much the same way. As a game, players write down words or sentences, adding to material generated by the previous person. The sentence or story continues on until a completed phrase or piece of fiction is created. Usually, the results are bizarre—the name of the game came from one of the first completed sentences using this method: The exquisite cadaver will drink the new wine. Similarly, improvisational filmmaking takes a theme or a set of characters and presents it to varying production companies and/or artists. They are then given the specific mandate to create something narratively cohesive out of the divergent elements inherent in the artists' individual styles.
An Exquisite Cadaver-style film project, especially in today's do-it-yourself climate of cinema, doesn't seem far-fetched. Naturally, there are potential pitfalls and problems, but the results could be very evocative and stimulating. After all, hearing different voices interpret a stock company of characters and basic plot parameters is very intriguing. For the most part, The Cliffhanger, the result of Split Pillow's recent efforts, pulls off the prank brilliantly. Mixing film noir with music-video vision, a healthy dose of David Lynch's twisted universe, and occasional bows to Tarantino and that other David—Cronenberg—this sinister sexual thriller is a complex, mysterious mesh of styles and substance that paints a daunting, if sometimes derivative, look at the seedy underbelly of life. The Cliffhanger is by no means a masterpiece; it is far too messy and scattershot to even suggest such. But as an experiment in group filmmaking, and a chance to see how several different directors and writers view the same strange story of sex, lies, and videotape, it's filled with many magical, magnificent moments.
Perhaps the one muse most relied on by the dozen or so creative minds represented here is Mr. Blue Velvet himself. Like Lynch, The Cliffhanger wants to show that beneath even the most normal, lackadaisical surface is a sordid world of sin, degradation, and redemption. In many ways, this improvised film resembles Lynch's television work (Twin Peaks, Hotel Room, Mulholland Dr.'s original pilot). But instead of half-hour or one-hour episodes, allowing divergent artists to explore character and story arc, each filmmaker is only given nine to 10 minutes to make his or her personal and plot points.
This means that The Cliffhanger is a movie that requires the viewer to work, no doubt about it. It makes you remember important details and portions of previously heard conversations to keep the plot moving forward. Sometimes, the distinct visionary qualities of the directors overwhelm the narrative needs, making the effort to stay engaged that much more difficult. But like anything that demands effort and concentration, the results can be invigorating and special. The Twin Peaks comparison is, perhaps, the best (though the video tape motif and the erratic narrative recall Lost Highway mixed with Crash and a far more passive Pulp Fiction). But it must be understood that there is none of the outrageous visual vibrancy associated with Lynch's lyrical masterworks, not a hint of Cronenberg's detached detail or Quentin's crackerjack dialogue. The references and atmospheres are more organic, as if born into each filmmaker's visual bag of tricks. The directors are not paying homage as much as showing how heavily influenced they are by these auteurs, how these relatively recent photoplay pioneers have ingrained their visions into the standard amalgamation of mise-en-scene. This means that in The Cliffhanger you can see the filmmakers' bows to those who've gone before them, but none of the power or passion that comes with said cinematic savants' work is visible.
If The Cliffhanger is flawed—and by its very nature it has to be (no one, not even Sammy Sosa, can go 11 for 11)—it is because of a lack of unity. Any audience for this film needs to know this before embarking on such an experiment in narrative. Indeed, in two very important and distinct ways, any fan of visionary cinema will be disappointed. First and foremost, don't expect a lot of in-depth character development or personal motivation clarity from this film. Since each filmmaker was discovering what came before, and in turn envisioning what they would leave for the next crew, the main individuals involved in this little dispassion play are vague and sometimes shallow. Often, minute visual clues have to be used to keep the photoplayers straight. Mike Stailey's yuppie Marcellus Wallace, Charlie, is usually shown only in carefully framed snippets to avoid any full-on view. This means Charlie is defined more by his mystery, and less by his menace. Simon the hit man is only recognizable by his goofy limp (the result of a misplaced knife blade to the buttocks) and his love of hair care. Sure, there are a couple of standouts. Laura Lonigro turns the tired, world-weary Iris into a shattered chanteuse, but the directors who tend to favor her over the other actresses give her a lot of help. Jesse Menendez brings a kind of straight-time sincerity to his reformed criminal Anthony. But again, his character carries a lot of the expositional weight, and that gives him a chance to act and react. Unfortunately, the rest of the cast is caught in the sights of the clashing creators. A couple of characters go through massive emotional and identity shifts, seemingly for no other reason than a desire to stir things up.
This leads to the second, and perhaps far more influential, flaw. What makes The Cliffhanger such a noble, but ultimately stymied, slice of suspense is the inherent lack of a cohesive visual theme. One of the reasons why filmmakers like the Coen Brothers or Terry Gilliam are championed for their work is the incredible control they exercise over the overall look, feel, and focus of their films. The Cliffhanger doesn't have the advantage of a sole visionary guiding the movie. That is why you see such divergent treatment of tone, art direction, set design, and costuming. With 11 different voices, dozens more production and screenwriting crew members, plus the contributions of the actors, all of whom are working from moment to improvised moment, the ability to maintain any consistency is impossible.
So The Cliffhanger goes in the opposite direction. It hopes to challenge our sensibilities with varying concepts and creative conceits. Problem is, the eventual building of emotion to a point of release—the tension the story is so desperate to twist up and electrify—never arrives. Aside from the incredible ending that uses mostly muted shots of the characters in deep reflection over a wonderfully atmospheric piano score, there is not a lot of image grace. The reason is obvious. Aside from shots of the magnificent Chicago skyline and Chapter 7's blatant MTV-video approach, we mostly witness a lot of talented people filming talking heads and trying to play catch-up while leaving their own mark on the movie and its characters. Trying to find poignant visuals or stunning settings isn't high on anyone's shot list. The film's optical options are therefore limited, and occasionally lifeless.
Perhaps the best way to approach The Cliffhanger, then, is as 11 short films authored under an attempted unifying theory. Individually, each link in the chain has its pros and cons. Following with the clever credits, which evoke a kind of Gahan Wilson-meets-virtual reality animation style, we are plunged immediately into a dark world of lost souls in Chris Tzoubris's manic, montage-filled Chapter One. It's remarkable to go back to the film, once it's over, and see how close Tzoubris came to creating the main issues in the film while in a couple of instances (Darius running into the car, for example) his contributions were all but forgotten. Chapters Two and Three, helmed by Louis Lapat and Sean Jourdan respectively, are all about character and subtext development. Lapat is responsible for the mystery tape, while Jourdan gives us the first actual stylized directorial flair in the film. His take on the tale, mostly in close-up and almost exclusively female, really shines with stellar examples of visual storytelling. With Chapter Four, we begin to see the first cracks in the experimental conceit. Hoping to inject some dark humor into the film, director Thomas Lisa focuses on the wounded hit man Simon and his dull-as-a-doorknob sidekick Chuck. Lisa's efforts are interesting, but not necessarily hilarious. Chapter Five goes even further into the realm of shaking things up by piling on the plot and the perverted nature of what is supposedly going on. Chris Koranek uses a series of jump cuts and lighting tricks to make this movement in the cinematic symphony come alive.
Chapter Six brings in our first outright riffing on a current filmmaker with director Juan Castaneda and his Tarantino-esque take on a goofy gang of goons. Castaneda mimics lots of QT elements (one guy is named Pop Tart for his love of same, another uses a map of the United States to navigate through Chicago), and his outrageously over-the-top banter makes for an amusing, but not necessarily easily incorporated, segment. The bright spot in Chapter Seven is Dan Mohr's craving to inject some manner of optical opulence and artistic expressionism into the film. Without furthering the plot very much, Mohr manages to instill a great deal of director panache in what is basically a long-form musical performance piece.
All of which leads to Chapter Eight. If there is one sequence that will either cause you to bail on and belittle this film, or fill you with a wicked optimism as to what's in store next, it's this challenging, plot-changing episode. Director Charlie Lermer succeeds in his self-proclaimed desire to "explode" the narrative, and The Cliffhanger mostly survives these twists. It's left to Chapters Nine and Ten to try and jigsaw the piecemeal plot back together. Director Dennis Belogorsky does his own narrative housecleaning, removing characters no longer beneficial to the convolutions that have come before. While making Chapter Nine, Belogorsky explains some of the muddled interpersonal dynamics. Thankfully, Gary Overstreet's streamlining in Chapter Ten sets us up for the enigmatic ending in Chapter Eleven. Matt Gabor's closing imagery is stunning and evocative. Not only does Gabor resolve many of the dangling dilemmas in the story, but he actually gives the performers a chance to use an internal sense of self to sell the payoff.
Had all the elements of The Cliffhanger followed Gabor's subdued sendoff, or matched Mohr's use of optical innovation, something spectacular could have resulted. Even if Koranek's corrupt underworld had been explored, or Castaneda's band of buffoonish bad boys emphasized, The Cliffhanger would have offered an unusual slice of independent cinema. But the end result is far more scattered. While the film tells an overall story that is involving, inventive, and occasionally difficult to stomach (anytime you invoke abuse and incest, the sensitivity sensors light up), it cannot decide on a tone or a temperament. Most of the time, the film feels like the bare bones outline of an unfinished novel or the first draft of a thesis on sin and corruption that is begging for a rewrite. As an experiment in cinematic staging and improvised imagination, The Cliffhanger is good, but it's not really a movie in the traditional sense (which may be the point, by the way). It cannot maintain a theme or an emotional undercurrent. We as the audience must react to everything solely on the basis of what we see on the surface. In the world of The Cliffhanger, two plus two cannot equal four because we are unsure about what value "two" has, and the plus sign could mean something completely different in the next chapter. Split Pillow should be proud of how well this movie works despite all the obstacles inherent in its initial concept, and the creative participants deserve a great deal of praise for their time, efforts, and talent. But The Cliffhanger proves that any time you play Exquisite Cadaver, you can end up with something fun, forced, or insufferable. This film is, indeed, a little bit of all three.
Distributed by Split Pillow itself in an overflowing two-disc DVD presentation, The Cliffhanger is a must-own package for any fan of independent film, as well as those interested in creating their own cinema. Even if you find the movie a mishmash of styles and satisfactions, the bonus content will give you amazing insight into the outsider element in a beyond-Hollywood production. As for the film itself, the 11 different directors and cinematographers, let alone 11 different assortments of technical equipment and levels of competency, means the visual and aural fundamentals of this photoplay are uneven. Presented in what appears to be a 1.66:1 aspect ratio, the non-anamorphic widescreen image offers varying degrees of clarity. Chapters One and Two look excellent, One relying on desaturated colors while Two amps the hues. Chapter Three mixes media, going from fuzzy to refined to evoke its symbolism. Chapters Four through Six also rely on the standard diffusion captured by a digital camera to collect clear, well-contrasted shots. Since Chapter Seven uses the most experimentation with lights and lenses, it is also the most optically compelling; same with Chapter Ten's emphasis on grain and image manipulation. A direct transfer element invades Chapters Eight and Nine, while the final chapter, Eleven, uses oversaturation to sell the sad, sentimental ending. Even though the lack of an anamorphic transfer is disturbing, the rest of The Cliffhanger looks rather good.
The soundtrack is a problem. Almost as inconsistent as the tone presented by each of the 11 directors, some scenes offer vibrant, easy-to-understand dialogue while others dwell in a near-deaf experience. No attempt is made to correct these audio errors, and the lack of any surround or immersive element makes the Dolby Digital Stereo a tad flat. Yet the varying musical score is well represented and sounds crystal clear. So if you don't expect reference quality (or even the ability to hear all the conversations between the characters), you won't be disappointed.
But it's the extras that really stand out in this digital package. Added together, they span almost three hours of insight into how this movie was made. The most amazing bonus feature in the two-DVD set has to be the full-length audio commentary featuring 21 of the creative participants. Each chapter gets individualized treatment, and the results are enlightening. Chris Tzoubris considers Chapter One "the trailer" for the rest of the film. Louis Lapat tells of the 45 minutes actor Joel Paul Resig spent in front of the mirror, riffing on his Darius character. Sean Jourdan explains that his decision to go almost exclusively female in Chapter Three was to avoid making women the "victims" yet again in a crime thriller. Thomas Lisa admits cracking up every time hit man Simon (Jared Martzell) screamed while having a bit of butt surgery, and Chris Koranek laughs over the massive amount of plot he placed in the film. He also mentions that the role of Charlie (played by DVD Verdict's own Appellate Judge, actor Michael "Screener Man" Stailey) was essayed with great skill, but that the actor didn't look like a "thug." Chapter Six's Juan Castaneda also has some wonderful things to say about Stailey's thespianism and acknowledges his own numerous bows to a certain Bill Killer. The ways glass brick reflects light and the storefront spectacle he staged for passersby make up the majority of director Dan Mohr's comments and the crew of Chapter Eight giggle at how they, basically, messed up the movie for their own ambitions. Dennis Belogorsky and Chapter Eleven producer Brian Ditchfield dissect the art of silent moviemaking while Gary Overstreet explains his fascination/sympathizing with Iris. There are dozens of memorable moments in this alternate narrative track, and the imagination, ego and energy these filmmakers have is amazing.
All of the above can be witnessed, onscreen, in the nearly one-hour documentary on Disc Two. Executive Producer Jason Stephens acts as our first-person tour guide as he captures the crews in action. Watching how each team worked, both independent of each other and with the previous crew's efforts, is an enlightening and educational experience. The manner in which certain shots were captured, and the casual mistakes that come with any production, are offered for all to see. Sometimes, the mood on the set is casual and calm. Other times, it seems that the delicate balance between professionalism and selfishness is threatened with overthrow. The only segment not spied on is Chapter Eight (its crew demanded their credit be pulled from the film due to "creative differences") but everyone else offers their insights and issues to make a stellar backstage feature.
Equally amazing is the "Searching for Exquisite" segment, a 15-minute overview of the involvement of Split Pillow, from the initial idea to the stressful premiere. Again, the insight into local, independent cinema (in this case, improvised and experimental to boot) is remarkable, with Stephens's need to match personal and professional ambitions making for a fascinating, fractured fable about being an outsider in the world of motion pictures. Along with a nice music video by director Thomas Lisa and a well-done trailer that never reveals too much, the two DVDs here are an intriguing window into the world of this precarious production.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Aside from the obvious audio and video issues raised (the lack of an anamorphic transfer is a real shame), the most obvious omission in this presentation is a cast commentary. It would have been interesting to hear from the people actually required to perform with 11 different creative teams and cinematic concepts, to understand how successful or difficult the shoot was. Just like the film, the crew commentary is choppy and individualized. An actors-only narrative track would have given us insight into the feelings regarding the final project and the experience overall. While having over a dozen, divergent egos in one room trying to comment on a single film may seem impossible, some effort should have been made to realize this idea. It would have been the final, fabulous asset to what is already an exceptional DVD package.
Experimental does not always mean difficult or arcane. Some could argue that the unstuck-in-time narrative arc in Pulp Fiction or the reverse order of events in Memento are examples of playing with motion picture parameters for the sake of the betterment of the craft (and a successful film). Sometimes, all the outsider movie has is its conceit. The Blair Witch Project, love it or hate it, gave anyone with a camera and a clever idea a vicarious thrill, turning a first-person-only film style into what some consider a horror gem.
So Split Pillow is not alone in trying to redefine film in light of the socialization of cinema. And as an idea, improvisational movie making and the Exquisite Cadaver framework are indeed clever. But The Cliffhanger stands somewhere in the middle. It is an engaging, involving crime thriller with a seedy, perverse undercurrent that maintains its mania for 95 involving minutes, but never explodes into a cathartic moment of moviemaking glory. Everyone involved is talented and noteworthy, but in the end, all their efforts fail to fully gel into something drenched in dueling dichotomies (Blue Velvet) or wallowing in its excess (Dead Ringers). Consider it a work concept in progress, a first go-round at what will, hopefully, be a series in movie manipulation.
Lord knows Hollywood needs a swift kick up its backside for some of the ponderous, pandering puke it releases. And the independent market is not beyond indulging in some of its own cliché concepts for the sake of some credibility. But The Cliffhanger wants to be an experience outside itself, to champion artists for their imagination prove that, when placed together, even the most divergent elements can intermingle into a cocktail of creativity. The resulting brew is intoxicating, but really doesn't leave much of a lasting impact.
The Cliffhanger is found not guilty and is free to go. Split Pillow is warned for the lack of an anamorphic transfer, but is released on its own recognizance. Court adjourned.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Emphasis Entertainment
• Full-Length Audio Commentary by The Cliffhanger's 11 Film Crews
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