Faces Of The Street – Two Short Films From Minneapolis
Here we present a look at two films that many people will not only not "get," but may have some difficulty in even seeing for themselves, as they are not widely available for viewing as of yet. Noah Tilsen's Grinning Faces and Roger Davidson's Street Hassle are two micro-budget indie shorts, both approximately 30 minutes long, made by two of the more promising filmmakers currently at work in the Twin Cities of my home state, Minnesota. Both films are dark (both in cinematography and content), stylish and disturbing, with a bit of gallows humor and a strong sense of impending doom and madness. It is this reviewer's opinion that short films are too often overlooked, and I try to rectify this oversight by occasionally reviewing them here; in fact, my first article as an official writer for this site was a lengthy analysis of one of my favorite films, Luis Bunuel's 16-minute masterpiece, Un Chien Andalou (1929).
Full disclosure: though I had nothing directly to do with the making of Grinning Faces, several of those both behind and in front of the camera are friends or acquaintances of mine, which is also true of Street Hassle; additionally, I have a minor, non-speaking role in Hassle, though my influence on the film is so minimal, I feel that it is not a conflict of interest for me to review it here. I thought it best to be up-front and honest about this, and I will do my utmost to provide unbiased reviews of both.
Grinning Faces begins with a black-screen and floating head narrator, "The Observer" (Steven Rod), who sports a carnival barker-style mustache and speaks with the kind of mysterious hyperbole and extravagant intonation of the same as he introduces the film. It is a moment far too similar to the opening of John Boorman's bizarre and hilarious Zardoz (1974) to not be an intentional homage. we are then introduced to "Hero" (Danny August Mason), a very intense and troubled young man who is grappling with his deviant psycho-sexual desires and hatred of humanity, and his creepy, mysterious mentor, "Writer" (Matthew Feeney), a novelist who seems to be writing Hero's story as Hero lives it. Completing the trifecta of protagonists is "Love" (Rachel Grubb), a prostitute Danny abruptly picks up in the middle of servicing another client (an uncredited cameo by Tilsen) who wants Hero to kill her in the midst of an orgasm, which she believes will transport her to an afterlife of eternal bliss.
Tilsen and cinematographer James Vogel create a world of almost constant darkness, with high-contrast lighting and harsh, garish red and green tones throughout; when we finally see sunlight near the end of the film, it is a bit of a shock. The film, Tilsen's first, wears its influences on its sleeve: there are shades of David Lynch's Blue Velvet (1986) and David Cronenberg's Videodrome (1983), among others. however, it manages to avoid the overt copycat tendencies of many first films through its clear love for ambiguity and its uniquely sick brand of humor; one early scene in which Hero masturbates while scanning the darkened city streets and reviling its denizens is particularly funny. all the principle actors turn in very good performances, particularly Mason in the lead. The film raises many questions about the nature of reality, especially in the relationship between Hero and Writer, and it is content to leave them unanswered, to its credit. Grinning Faces has its flaws – some of the sound design is a bit overdone, and the aforementioned sunlit ending is less than satisfying – but the film is always entertaining, and troubling in ways of which Cronenberg and Lynch would undoubtedly approve.
Street Hassle also deals with the grimy, undesirable aspects of life in the city, but Davidson's first film takes the form of a more straightforward drama. The film introduces us to Martin (Colin Reid), a young gay man who left college for the life of a street hustler, making his living through risky hook-ups with strange men in alleys and parks. he tells his story in flashback form to an interviewer played by Amity Carlson, and its truths are gradually revealed in a non-linear fashion, tracing his various hardships with the random johns and homophobic cops that have populated his existence over the years. His best friend throughout has been the punk rocker Crista (KariAnn Craig), a sort of older sister figure who Martin blames, I would say unfairly, for his current woes. Gradually, we delve deeper into Martin's history to uncover his reasons for leaving school, which involve a troubled relationship with his former professor, Jacob Mailer (Bill Cooper).
This is a tense and angst-filled film that clearly comes from a personal place. Martin is not the most likable character, but he embodies the hidden struggles of many of today's street people; he is not the stereotypical filthy welfare bum, but rather a child of privilege who has lost his way and taken to the streets, another common route to poverty and dissolution. The overarching theme of the film seems to be a comment on the nature of selling oneself, both metaphorically and literally, and this is explored in an interesting way. Its biggest flaw is in its acting, which is up and down; Craig is quite good as Crista, but is unfortunately not given enough to do outside of being a sounding board for Martin's troubles, while Reid is somewhat melodramatic and whiny as Martin. Cooper also feels a bit self-conscious and unnatural, mincing about his scenes with a sort of campy menace, though perhaps this is intentional; his scenes convey the kind of overtly creepy older man in a position of power for which the role seems to call, but in the third-act dinner scene between he and Martin, he comes off as a sort of low-rent Gary Oldman in Francis Ford Coppola's Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992). in any case, the stark black-and-white cinematography by Matthias Saunders is the film's greatest strength, with a final shot that is particularly haunting and effective at invoking the despair of its content, and Davidson shows an impressive command of non-linear storytelling in the film's structure.
Both of these short films are impressive debuts and show great promise for their respective filmmakers. It is unfortunate that shorts are so often ignored in favor of feature films, which in many cases are bloated and padded out to feature-length without actually saying anything more than a really good short can in a fraction of the time.