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Entries in Director's Cut [2016] (1)

Sunday
Jul102016

Director's Cut (2016)

Reliable (Crowd)sources

They're not everybody's cuppa joe, but I'm a sucker for behind-the-scenes movies. Much to the dismay of anyone who might actually be concerned, I rated Birdman as my top film of 2014, in part due to the meta-novelty of watching Emmanuel Lubezki's camera float semi-seamlessly throughout a doomed Broadway show. I was just as taken with the artistry, innovation, and patience that writer/director Alejandro González Iñárritu employed in orchestrating a film about chaos as I was with its narrative. This is also the case with Adam Rifkin's crowdfunding comedy, Director's Cut, which, though it may not top my 2016 list, is certainly a movie I'll be thinking about for months to come.

Eleven years ago, writer Penn Jillette conceived of a horror movie in which a socially awkward, egomaniacal, and supremely untalented filmmaker named Herbert Blount makes his way onto a film crew. He becomes a fly on the production's wall and begins stalking the female lead, an actress with whom he has long been dangerously obsessed.

The idea sat on the proverbial shelf, as Jillette struggled with the illogic of Blount's unfettered film-set access. Years later, he became friendly with filmmaker Adam Rifkin, who loved the story and agreed to help make it a reality. Time, it seems, heals even narrative wounds, and the advent of crowdfunding websites like Kickstarter gave Jillette just the glue he needed to hold his script together: Herbert Blount would now be a mega-backer on a crowdfunded detective-thriller, his generous financial contribution netting him the "perk" of witnessing movie magic firsthand. He'd even get an on-screen speaking part.

Through the development process, Rifkin and Jillette decided to actually crowdfund their movie, and Director's Cut became a comedy. The result is a Blair Witch-style found-footage picture, one ostensibly finished by Blount and blending stolen elements from the "legit" movie-within-a-movie, Knocked Off, with "improvements" by the crazed wannabe director. Complicating matters is the fact that Blount uses Director's Cut to educate his audience on the finer points of filmmaking: pausing scenes and drawing diagrams on the still frames; incorporating excised footage (complete with time codes) back into the feature; and providing audio commentary over the theatrical version of his movie.

Another layer makes this an active moviegoing experience, instead of a passive one, and may involve psychic residue from Director's Cut's horror-genre origin. In Knocked Off, the movie-in-a-movie, two grizzled L.A. cops (Harry Hamlin and Hayes MacArthur) team up with an attractive FBI agent (Missi Pyle) to bring down a serial killer who recreates the crimes of famous madmen like Jeffrey Dahmer, Richard Speck, and Charles Whitman. The lighting, camerawork, and performances are all done straight, and could be cut scenes from any middle-of-the-road CSI spin-off. But in the context of Blount's clownish, "I can do better" meddling, Knocked Off becomes the backdrop for a note-perfect Mad Magazine send-up of generic cop thrillers. 

Digging a bit deeper, Rifkin and Jillette's intent gets a bit murky. They stage the murder flashbacks with high-gloss, fantastical panache, making the killer the hero of his own twisted movie. This isn't unheard of in such films and TV shows, but Rifkin revels so heavily in blood-spattered breasts, vigorous stabbings, and women screaming in agony that his "parody" movie becomes downright unsettling. The line, if there was one, between genre commentary and exploitation all but disappears.

The Charles Whitman-copycat segment looks like something out of The Walking Dead, complete with CGI sniper-fire head shots. Later, a madman walks into a fast food joint and mows down dozens of patrons with a machine gun in bloody, action-movie fashion. Granted, Rifkin and Jillette couldn't have predicted the social climate in which their film would be released, but this is the wrong year for a mass-murder-of-innocents-as-entertainment picture: the morning after I saw Director's Cut, news broke of the Dallas ambush, in which five cops were assassinated during a protest. 

Here's where things get really complicated. On the surface, the restaurant scene is supposed to be horrific, since it's a major set piece in a film about a psychopathic killer. One level beneath, Knocked Off director Adam Rifkin (played by Director's Cut director Adam Rifkin) frantically sets up the elaborate, one-take shot, which is populated by a bunch of crowdfunding extras with speaking parts. One level deeper still is Blount's editorializing of this scene, which was removed from the final cut of Knocked Off (but not Director's Cut), and contains a sort of mini-lesson from his (terrible) filmmaking class.

And then there's the scene's note-perfect button, an obvious end-gag in hindsight that still managed to surprise me in the moment--probably because the anticipation got buried beneath everything I listed above. In one five-minute stretch, I was impressed by the on-screen logistics, invested in the multi-tiered narrative, nauseated by the violence, and unabashedly amused.

That's a tidy summary of my experience with the film, but it's literally only half the picture. The script takes a very sharp turn as Herbert steps up his efforts to take control of Knocked Off and woo Missi Pyle. I won't get into exactly what happens, but the filmmakers punt their story right off the deep end, in the best possible way. The film becomes a gonzo collage of lo-fi adjustments to big(gish)-budget material, capped by Pyle's chameleonic transition from actress to character to fake actress (I'm still not sure I've covered all the dimensions, or kept them straight). Her comedic gifts buoy the screenplay just above levels that could, at certain points, be considered gross misogyny--particularly during a scene that finds the actress in a cold shower wearing a flesh-colored body suit with cartoon genitalia crudely filled in.

Director's Cut reminded me of the Mr. Plinkett inserts from Red Letter Media's video-review series, in which a deranged killer provides lengthy, insightful, and often hilarious film analysis while also exploring the depths of his bones-strewn basement. Rifkin and Jillette pull off something just as sharp, funny, depraved, and impossible-to-recommend-to-most-people. I loved it. Then again, I also loved Birdman.