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156. STRANGE FRAME: LOVE & SAX (2012)

“How fortunate are those who can frame the beauty of the strange.”–opening title of Strange Frame

DIRECTED BY: G.B. Hajim

FEATURING: Claudia Black, Tara Strong, Ron Glass, 

PLOT: In the 28th century, saxophonist Parker falls in love with songwriter and escaped debt slave Naia on Jupiter’s moon Ganymede. The two women form a band, which catches the eye of a music producer. When the producer kicks the sax player out of the band to set Naia up as a solo act, hooks the singer on drugs and isolates her from the outside world, Parker teams up with two interplanetary trash haulers to penetrate the corporate defenses that separate the women.

Still from Strange Frame: Love & Sax (2012)
BACKGROUND:

  • This is the first feature film from Hawaii-based director G.B. Hajim and the first script and soundtrack from co-writer/co-composer Shelley Doty.
  • Hajim and Doty began discussing the project in 1999, and began writing the script in 2002. They envisioned Love & Sax as the first in a series of four films.
  • More than forty Hawaiian high school students worked as interns on the film over its seven years of production.
  • The black and white live action footage edited into the film comes from the all-black feature The Duke Is Tops (1938), starring Lena Horne as a singer who is manipulated into leaving her lover behind with promises of becoming a star in New York City.
  • “Star Trek” alumnus George Takei has a vocal cameo.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Strange Frame is at its visual best when it’s a free-flowing montage: cut-out mutant space lesbians in the foreground, swirling psychedelic backgrounds drifting in and out of focus in the background. It is therefore a difficult task to isolate a single strange frame from this movie; every image is in a constant state of flux. One of the best sequences occurs when Satanically suave agent Dorlan Mig plies the women with powders and rare liquors in an upscale Ganymede nightclub populated by horned celebrity dominatrices and their monocle-wearing cat-person managers. Immediately before the lovers are launched into a trip that’s visually unhinged even by this movie’s extreme standards, we see them reflected in his mirrored shades, one girl improbably and perfectly framed in each lens, before their visages dissolve and morph into pink lips and tongues. That’s about as standout a standalone image as you’ll be able to find in this Heraclitan river of psychedelic cinema.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: This story of two renegade lesbian rock stars gigging among the moons of Jupiter is a bit odd, but really not all that weird in and of itself. It’s the visuals that (as the movie’s legend promises) “frame the beauty of the strange.” Imagine dropping a hefty dose of LSD on the set of Blade Runner, and you walk through a door and suddenly you’re in the Star Wars cantina. Now, imagine that experience animated by the team behind Fantastic Planet working under the direction of , take that result and square the weirdness quotient, and you have some inkling of Strange Frame‘s visuals.


Original trailer for Strange Frame

COMMENTS: Strange Frame is an animated psychedelic lesbian science fiction musical. Just to be clear, I would have been happy with any three out of those five adjectives. An animated psychedelic musical or a lesbian science fiction musical or psychedelic animated lesbians: any of those combos would have caught my attention. In truth, a psychedelic animated lesbian science fiction musical seems like it might be too rich a concoction, yet Strange Frame manages to blend these far-flung ingredients together into a savory stew. Let’s go through those descriptors one by one, from the least to the most dominant, and see how each element fits into the whole.

“Animated”: Budgetary considerations probably dictated the choice of animation as the vehicle to deliver Strange Frame‘s ambitious tale. Location shooting on the moons of Jupiter is too much to ask of an independent production. The cut-out animation style used here, which doesn’t need every single element of every single frame to be animated separately, allows the movie to be completed cheaply. Looking at an individual frame of Strange Frame is misleading; it can look cheap and cheesy, like a quickie Photoshop job with cartoony figures stuck on a random background. However, when animated in incredible detail inside constantly shifting environments (see “psychedelic” for more on that score), Strange Frame comes alive with a space-age sensibility that belies its lo-tech origins.

“Musical”: Strange Frame‘s protagonist, Parker, is a saxophonist, her love interest Naia is a singer, and the plot revolves around manipulative pop promoters, so the presence of musical numbers in the story isn’t a surprise. It’s not Singin’ in the Rain or even The American Astronaut; there are no production numbers, music is simply woven into the fabric of the narrative. That’s not to say the music is woven realistically into the narrative—although spotlighting the band’s onstage performances, Parker’s soulful street corner busking or Naia’s chart-topping singles make sense, there are plenty of places where the singing is perfectly illogical, in Hollywood’s standard musical tradition. Naia breaks into song when she first meets Parker in the middle of a riot (a sample of her lyrical improvisations: “every shattered pane of glass/Reflects a lovely piece of ass”). There are also three hooker muses (Calliope, Clio and Terpsee) who show up periodically to serve as a doo-wop Greek chorus. Most of the music is middling funk-pop-rock with 80s-style synthesizers and Clarence Clemmons-style throaty saxes; it’s not very futuristic (maybe Jupiter’s moons are undergoing a retro fad). The music isn’t bad, but it’s nothing special either, with the exception of a pretty good cover of Pink Floyd’s “The Gunner’s Dream,” which works despite the fact that the song’s subject matter doesn’t fit the movie’s story. Although you wouldn’t punch up the soundtrack to Strange Frame very often for a solo listen on your iPad, as a sonic background for the movie’s visual treats, the music works—although it’s Claudia Black’s slightly husky, smoky and seductive narration that supplies the film’s main audio highlights.

“Lesbian”: Strange Frame takes the attitude that Parker and Naia’s relationship is unremarkable. No one in the story thinks twice about the fact that the lovers are both females, and the parts could have easily been rewritten for a heterosexual couple. Parker and Naia’s love affair is as stylized as their cut-out avatars. Their meet-cute is really a meet-strange; they begin heavy flirting even before being properly introduced, fitting their double entendres in between dodging the glowing electric batons of riot police who are trying to bash their heads in. We accept their rushed relationship because we understand the conventions of movie romance, and we easily adapt to the fact that it’s a girl-meets-girl rather than boy-meets-girl scenario. This is not to say that the lesbianism is downplayed; there are a smattering of sensually erotic sapphic scenes to satisfy the connoisseur of girl-on-girl erotica. But the matter-of-factness with which the relationship is presented is refreshing; this is a gay movie that doesn’t rub its lesbians in your face (so to speak). Too often, mediocre examples of gay and lesbian cinema are championed by queer partisans simply because they are happy to see homosexual characters represented on-screen. But by not trying to be flamingly butch, Strange Frame makes a more profound statement about the normalization of homosexuality. Although it should appeal to the lesbian film crowd—-and the even smaller niche of lesbian sci-fi fans, and the even tinier niche of lesbian sci-fi musical fans, and so on to the infinitesimal core audience—Strange Frame transcends its sexual orientation.

“Science Fiction”: This gay gals in space offering may not be aggressively lesbian, but it is aggressively science fictional. In fact, this is hard science fiction, closer to 2001 or Moon than the space operas of Star Trek or “Babylon Five.” The script constructs the weird world of the future through reasonable extension of current technological and cultural trends. For example, all the skin in this movie, set about 700 years in the future, comes in some shade of brown; the movie doesn’t dwell on this fact, but it reflects evolutionary biologists projections of the likely effect of ethnic intermixing on human phenotypes. A prologue quickly explains most of the backstory: humans despoiled the Earth and fled for interplanetary pastures, and the poor seeking passage were tricked into becoming an underclass of debt-slaves. Genetic modification to improve workers’ productivity became commonplace, explaining the many furry and multi-limbed mutant creatures that populate Strange Frame‘s frame. (Minor background characters sport ram’s horns, cat ears, and fluorescent green hair). Obviously, the creators spent a great deal of time thinking about the background of this society: hints are dropped throughout the film about other futuristic developments, like tragically enslaved artificial intelligences that run spaceships and recreational drugs that are synthesized on demand from tiny snuffbox devices. If this story had been told in a novel, it would have been described as hardcore speculative realism—but delivering the story as an animated lesbian musical amplifies the sense of wonder.

“Psychedelic”: The unfamiliar universe, bizarre musical digressions, and spectacularly imaginative nightclub visuals of Strange Frame create an aesthetic that can only be characterized as psychedelic, trippy, or lysergic. The entire movie looks like a stoned underground cartoonist’s rendering of an imaginary co-convention between Trekkies and furries set at the Electric Daisy Carnival. Even the most rudimentary narrative developments are delivered in a strange style, but when the characters have dream sequences or snort futuristic powders, things get delightfully disorienting and pleasantly weird in a hurry. We’ll just list a few of the rapid-fire events that occur at the nightclub where Dorlan Mig feeds the women exotic intoxicants: there’s a slideshow of erotic Japanese prints that turn three-dimensional and solarize as the camera enters them, neon tracers, audible blinking, dancing fuchsia holograms, impossible reflections, green afros, lavender-tinted scenes from all-black movies from the 1930s tilting back and forth woozily in front of kaleidoscopic backgrounds, and Satanic apparitions arising out of the multicolored mist. If the rest of the movie would be merely odd and singular in its mix of sci-fi, rock music, and erotic animation, it’s unrestrained montages like this one—and there are several scattered throughout the movie—that tip Strange Frame to the “weird” side of the scale.

If Strange Frame had simply been conceived as a let’s-throw-four-or-five-different-niche-interests-together-to-create-a-deliberate-cult-film project, it probably would have been a failure; but as it is, the movie feels organically grown. Its wide range of preoccupations and styles mesh surprisingly well. This may be the result of its co-creators—a white male cinematographer and an African-American female musician—collaborating together for so long on the project that their separate sensibilities merged into something rare and new. If there is a complaint to be raised against Strange Frame, it’s that the Faustian music contract plot is contrived and familiar (compare the already recycled plot of 1980′s unfortunate The Apple). And Strange Frame‘s story not always well-thought out or entirely explained. For example, we are never really told why Dorlan Mig is so anxious to cut Parker out of the action, there is an undeveloped hint that Greater Powers want to harness some sort of mystical messianic charisma possessed by Naia for unknown reasons, and an entire subplot about the artificial intelligence on the Lone Mango goes nowhere. The plot is clichéd and undercooked at the same time, but you’ll barely have time to think about that while this movie is wowing you with eye candy and walloping you with new ideas. I won’t complain: it basically has everything you could ever want in an animated psychedelic lesbian sci-fi musical.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a dreamscape, one that does not shy aware from the ugly, yet celebrates the beautiful.”–Shelagh M. Rowan-Legg, Twitch (festival screening)

“…may make some feel like they are on the bad-side of an acid trip, with its hallucinogenic, cut-out animation style. However, the film possesses such an intense exuberance in both its aesthetics and storytelling that it gradually becomes captivating, once one is able to acclimate themselves to the film’s bizarre design.”–Adam Mohrbacher, Film Monthly (DVD)

“…an animated instant cult classic that is oddly compelling and strangely beautiful to watch… surreal and over the top.”–Brett Cullum, DVD Verdict (DVD)

OFFICIAL SITE:

Strange Frame: Love & Sax – There are a few broken elements, but here you can find extensive stills, background information, and the director’s blog

IMDB LINK: Strange Frame: Love & Sax (2012)

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

G.B. Hajim and Shelley Doty’s ‘Strange Frame,’ The World’s First Animated Lesbian Sci-Fi FilmThe Huffington Post reports on the production; includes the video pitch for the (failed) Kickstarter finishing-funds drive

Rough Cut Voice Session with George Takei – Video of Takei reading his lines for the film

DVD INFO: Small distributor Wolfe Video (who specializes in independent gay and lesbian releases) has put out a nice, technically adept DVD of the movie (buy). Extra features include a deleted scene, a short peek at actors recording their lines, and an interview with star Claudia Black, along with trailers for this and other features.

Although its color depth and audio-visual complexity suggest that this film would be a natural for Blu-ray, it sadly appears that the economics don’t justify burning copies for such a specialty feature—unless Frame finds a future as a cult item. The movie is available for on-demand rental (rent on-demand), however.

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