Saturday, November 26, 2011
Self-reflexivity (for those that don't know, the pointing out of a piece's artificiality by the piece itself) has been around for a long time. In movies, you could even say it goes all the way back to the very beginning, when Justus D. Barnes pointed his six-gun directly at the camera and fired in the closing moments of The Great Train Robbery in 1903 (lovingly homaged by Scorsese in Goodfellas). As with any art form, film itself and the processes of its production and exhibition would inevitably be incorporated into the final product and eventually become another tool in the filmmakers' arsenal. While not a standard device, self-reflexivity has been widely enough used in films that it has become accepted by audiences worldwide. So, why the history lesson for things you probably already know, you ask? Because writer/director Chris Regan's short film, Jenny Ringo And The Monkey's Paw makes extensive use self-reflexivity and intertextual devices to tell its story.
We begin inside an art film. Black-and-white footage of a man and a woman sitting on a beach, smoking (what appear to be) clove cigarettes and talking in vaguely-emotion-revealing gibberish. Suddenly, our protagonist, Jenny Ringo (Rosie Duncan) interrupts, telling us, the audience, that we need to witness her tale. We then get a brief history of Jenny and her slack-ass roommate, Gavin (Lukas Habberton). Though they're friends, Jenny needs a break and heads off to a wiccan retreat. On her return, she discovers that Gavin has come into possession of an enchanted monkey's paw and, out of desperation, wished into existence two friends to keep him company. To say that Jeff Awesome (Scott Haney) and (the dying-to-be-commented-on-by-James-Bond) Candy Gorgeous (Dominique Bull) are not nearly as nice and perfect as they at first appear would be an understatement.
When W.W. Jacobs first wrote the short story, "The Monkey's Paw," in 1902, it was intended as a parable. Be careful what you wish for, you just might get it. It was also fatalistic in the sense that when we try to circumvent the universe's plans for us, we only bring sorrow on ourselves. This is why no one, not even Homer J. Simpson, is capable of making a wish that won't in some way, shape, or form backfire on the wisher. Jenny Ringo And The Monkey's Paw follows in this pattern. Gavin wants a perfect friend, who then wants a perfect girlfriend, and naturally the whole affair is not about to go according to Hoyle. However, Regan's film doesn't display much of the irony that pretty much every other iteration of the story does (example: you wish for a cup of coffee, and you receive it, but it has cream and sugar in it, and you're lactose intolerant and diabetic). The supernatural aspects of the new friends (they're telepathic, for starters) feel "out of left field," but I can respect their inclusion, because when dealing with a plot device like a monkey's paw, it's (almost) anything goes. When the plot finally does comment on the underlying problems between Jenny and Gavin (located in Gavin's room), it's genuinely interesting, and I felt as if the rest of the main plot should have been in this vein.
It is impossible to think about this film without talking about stylistic techniques, and Regan and company employ a slew of them. Aside from the more embedded techniques (see first paragraph), there are also animations used to tell a story within a story (or start one anyway) and to visualize (in a very well-played pun) a theatrical principle. The Magician (Simon Messingham) who foisted the monkey's paw on Gavin in the first place does a full-on song-and-dance number with ghost dancers to illustrate the futility of Jenny and Gavin's efforts. The monkey's paw is actually from a stuffed monkey doll. There are tons of clever things going on throughout, and they help maintain interest for the runtime. And this leads me to my biggest criticisms of the piece.
It is difficult to get a movie made at all, especially with the slickness of this one. The cinematography is gorgeous. When the filmmakers allowed themselves to open up the frame. Since the majority of the film takes place in a cramped apartment, the majority of shots doesn't go wider than about medium/medium-long (and are often closer). I was yearning for some more variety in shot choice, and the tightness made me feel slightly claustrophobic. Additionally (and larger), I didn't come away with any emotional connection to the characters. This is not to say that the characters are flat or the performances bad (though they could have all been taken down about 50% in intenseness), they're just not fully-realized onscreen. In twenty-five minutes, there are so many imaginative goings-on, the characters, whose story and "lives" we are supposed to be invested in, get lost. We get hints, we almost get an emotional reveal, but we're whisked off so quickly to the next plot point, it ultimately doesn't resonate. That said, Jenny's destiny (if this is, in fact, to be hers) is brilliant not only in its manner but also in its elliptical nature.
As far as I'm aware, this is Regan's first narrative directing credit, and as a first-timer, he shows a tremendous amount of promise. I'm grateful that there are filmmakers out there willing to take chances with their work like this. Does Jenny Ringo And The Monkey's Paw always work? No, but I would rather watch an imperfect film that has the balls to step out of line a bit than a perfect one that always plays it safe.
If you're interested in hearing more about the film, its universe, and future, go on over to www.jennyringo.com and sign up for the mailing list.
MVT: Chris Regan shows that he's someone to keep an eye on in the future.
Make Or Break: The first scene sets the overall tone, and it does so quite well, right down to the non sequitur intertitles.
Posted by Todd at 7:31 AM