41. I CAN SEE YOU (2008)

“I CAN SEE YOU is a film about the thing that frightens me the most… my own mind… we as sentient human beings are completely at the mercy of an organ that we may never fully understand; an organ that, at the slightest malfunction, can throw our perception of reality into such chaos and confusion that we will never see or experience the world the same way again.”–Graham Reznick, from the Director’s Statement for I Can See You

DIRECTED BY: Graham Reznick

FEATURING: Ben Dickinson, Larry Fessenden,

PLOT:  Ben is a nearsighted, neurotic and painfully shy photographer/artist working for an advertising start-up firm looking to land a huge contract for the ClarActix corporation. The three twenty-something admen organize a camping trip to snap nature photos that can be used in the campaign.  At a campfire hootenanny, Ben meets a beautiful hippie girl he once had a crush on, and his awkward attempts to romance the free-spirited girl lead him to an internal breakdown that manifests itself in a series of unnerving surrealistic montages.

Still from I Can See You (2008)

BACKGROUND:

  • Director Graham Reznick accumulated over a dozen credits on low-budget films in the sound department before helming I Can See You, his first feature film.
  • I Can See You is the fifth in the “Scarefilx” series executive produced by Larry Fessenden (who also appears in the movie as the ClarActix spokesman).  According to its press release, the Scareflix series is “designed to exploit hungry new talent and inspire resourceful filmmakers to produce quality work through seat-of-the-pants ingenuity.”
  • Actors Ben Dickson, Christopher Ford and Duncan Styles, who play the members of the three man advertising firm in the film, are part of Waverly Films, a YouTube based comedy troupe that makes ad parodies, among other sketches.
  • Composer Jeff Grace was an assistant to Howard Shore on The Lord of the Rings films.

INDELIBLE IMAGE:  Relying as it does on the montage style for its unsettling effect, I Can See You is filled with memorable imagery.  The briefly seen double-image of Ben is sublimely creepy, so much so that a variation of it was used for the original movie poster (unhappily abandoned in favor of a forgettable still of Ben shaving for the DVD release).  It’s Ben’s unfinished, faceless portrait of his father, however, which recurs several times in different contexts, that is the film’s most important visual symbol.  If you stare at the painting long enough you can make out tiny indications of eyes and a mouth, which makes the picture even more uncanny than pure blank flesh would be.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRDI Can See You is one of the trippiest, druggiest movies to come


Official trailer for I Can See You

down the pike since the psychedelic Sixties; the last sequence plays like a twenty-minute, long-take hallucination shot on location inside Ben’s splintered mind.

COMMENTS: I Can See You‘s strategy is to slowly build up a storehouse of images, then transform them and fire them back at the viewer in puzzling combinations.  For the first forty-five minutes, the movie hikes along slowly.  Occasionally, an ominous image like the faceless portrait of Ben’s father pops into the frame at an incongruous point, such as during a love scene.  Just before the one hour mark, the protagonist’s mind starts to crack.  He hears an oily, besuited, 1950s style pitchman—looking more than a bit like Mr. Belding from the teen sitcom “Saved By the Bell” wearing a pompadour toupee, and played with just the right note of caricature and underlying menace by Larry Fessenden—commenting inside his head, and we are treated to the first of several surrealistic montages.  As the film goes on, the interval between the scenes that obviously occur in the real world and those that exist only in Ben’s mind get shorter and shorter, until the finale consists of an exquisitely disturbing, twenty minute onslaught of rapid-fire recombinations of scenes and themes that have come before.  The style is similar to that of Fabrice Du Welz’s Calvaire, which also took a leisurely route to set up it’s bizarre scenario before exploding into surrealistic fury (although the first half of I Can See You does move at a slightly brisker clip than the glacial Belgian horror).

Technically, the movie is unexpectedly accomplished, considering that it was made by relative unknowns from the Fessenden fear factory working on an obviously low budget.  The shot-on-video cinematography is top notch throughout; there is one shot of luminous dappled leaves that, in terms of sheer prettiness, rivals any picture put onscreen in 2008.  The psychedelic post-production effects are also great, although sometimes the clumsy look of the physical props and makeup betray the low budget. Where the movie’s technique really shines is in the audio department; director Reznick’s background as a sound designer is apparent.  The background score and the environmental noises—altered feedback, static, choirs of crickets, lonely drumbeats, a discordant, sawing cello—create a constant, inescapable feeling of unease.  These anxious sonorities are used with a calibrated restraint so that they never quite overwhelm the senses, but set a fearful background mood that keeps the viewer expecting something terrible to happen.

The movie’s story and characterization never quite catch up to the technical accomplishments, but sometimes Reznick shows a fascinating ability to create tension without action.  In the opening scene, Ben struggles to put a face to the portrait of his father he’s working on; we see his intense face, his ashtray overflowing with cigarette butts, followed by closeups of a paintbrush and a painting knife poised so close to the picture that we can make out the weave in the canvas.  In the background a radio newsman, whose reports slip into static, gives us bad news—traffic gridlock, the market is falling, ClarActix is about to lay off workers in the wake of a deforestation scandal, pollution is so bad that those with asthma or emphysema are cautioned to stay indoors.  If you aren’t tuned into the details, the scene plays dull, but it starts the film off on a subtle note of unease that builds to a climax as the movie continues. Later, Reznick achieves the same sort of delicately distressing effect simply by blurring the camera image.  Ben takes off his glasses to swim in the river, and as he tries to build on his budding relationship with Summer, we see the action from his nearsighted viewpoint.  The conversation falters as he struggles for words, and it’s clear the girl is losing interest; but rather than just being embarrassed for him, our inability to read her facial reactions makes the situation psychologically alarming.  Her blank face recalls the incomplete portrait with its dim indications of facial features.

Scenes like these are minor triumphs for those who pay close attention, but they don’t entirely make up for the deliberateness of the opening reels and the overall lack of narrative thrust.  Marketed as a horror film, I Can See You sets up and quickly subverts a slasher movie premise.  Whenever a bunch of young people go off camping in the woods, the modern horror fan expects them to get drunk and/or high, get laid, and then be slaughtered one by one in gory detail.  This is especially true when the kids are unlikable, insolent brats.  Ben’s companions are certainly obnoxious and self-absorbed enough to make the audience long to see them slaughtered.  Sonia is obsessed with getting a cell phone signal, Kimble doesn’t seem to have a sincere bone in his body, and the brilliantly hateable Doug (Duncan Skiles) is so sarcastic, manipulative, and disloyal that you get the feeling Jesus himself would like nothing better than to give him a swift kick to the groin.

The characters in I Can See You aren’t teenagers, though; they’re young professionals, and this movie makes a more mature play on those old splatter clichés that deliberately disappoints those craving an old-fashioned slice-and-dice in the woods.  There is little blood here, though much psychological gore.  The story moves slowly; nothing of terrific interest happens in the entire first half.  At times, you get the feeling that Reznick knew he had thirty or so minutes of great psychedelic montages, and just needed the rest of the story to set up the imagery he planned to recycle into the acid trip climax.  Lingering over the setup allows Reznick to establish believable characters, but these folks are just too unlikable for us to want to spend that much time with them.  It could have been established more quickly that Doug is king of the jerks, Kimble a jerk-in-training, and Ben the pathetic loser who gets teased by the other two.

Ben is neurotic, so worried that something has been said about him that he humiliatingly allows the other two to stroke his mustache just so they’ll tell him what it was.  Actor Ben Dickinson inhabits the role with an easy awkwardness.  But, although we get to know Ben rather intimately, there is something as incomplete in his psychological portrait as there is in the faceless painting of his father.  We never penetrate to Ben’s emotional core, or understand what causes him to snap at precisely this moment.  There’s no single incident we can point at to define him; whatever’s bugging him has been building for a long time, and the romantic frustration we’re privy to doesn’t seem intense enough to spark such a complete and total break with reality.  Despite seeing much of the movie from his subjective viewpoint, we never really know or identify with him; he always seems to be a mysterious case study we are observing.  The opaqueness of Ben’s personality may have been a deliberate choice by the director, a comment on the inscrutability of other people, but it leaves us less involved with the tale than we might have otherwise been.  It leaves us waiting for Reznick’s next surreal spectacle to keep us going.

Fortunately, these scenes are worth the wait.  Besides the mesmerizing closing montage and the memorable appearances of Fessenden as the man-out-of-time pitchman, there is one other defining moment in the film.  It’s a musical number “Spray it On” that appears at just the right moment to break the tension.  The title alludes both to the ClarActix cleaning product the boys are building a campaign around, and explicitly to Ben’s sexual frustration and jealousy.  The tune is catchy, part bubblegum single and part advertising jingle; it could even work as a standalone music video, although it’s special here due to its placement and context.  This interlude is reminiscent of the “candy colored clown” sequence from Blue Velvet, but it doesn’t seem derivative. Reznick gives the conceit a contemporary stamp, a MTV-on-mescaline feel that makes it his own. The song and dance plays out with just the right balance of humor and deep, weird fear.

“I’m wondering… what is the blurring supposed to represent?,” Fessenden’s sinister subconscious spokesman asks Ben when the photos he takes of the woods turn out covered in murky white blobs like cobwebs or smoke.  The viewer asks the same question.  Vision, or rather the lack of clear vision, is clearly the crucial symbol in the film, from Ben’s glasses (digital versions of which show up superimposed over key scenes) to the obscure portrait to the fact that ClarActix cleaner smears window grime into a blurry paste that actually makes it harder to see.  The movie appears to be about perception, about a pessimistic epistemology that says we can’t really ever see things the way they truly are.  The title, while carrying a sinister, stalker-type claim (e.g., I Saw What You Did, I Know What You Did Last Summer) is ironic; if Ben is the “I,” then he never sees those around him clearly; he sees them through a paranoid, distorting lens. We never see Ben clearly, either. The images that come rushing at the viewer all come from Ben’s particular experience: the faces of Sunny, Doug and the others; the unfinished portrait; woodland scenes; the ClarActix products; a corporate logo that Ben’s mind transforms into an occult symbol.  The only problem is that Ben’s personal symbols don’t generate any universal concerns we can relate to.  They belong uniquely to him, to his neurotic and fearful way of dealing with people.  The lack of resonance with anything outside of Ben, with anything in our worlds, makes the movie less than what it might otherwise have been.  We remain nothing but observers of Ben’s fractured psyche.  But that can be something both lovely and terrifying to look at.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“‘I Can See You’ heralds a splendid new filmmaker with one eye on genre mechanics, one eye on avant-garde conceits and a third eye for transcendental weirdness.”–Nathan Lee, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

“So much about this movie and its characters should be annoying, but the sensory disorientation climaxes in a freakout that wipes all your troubles away, as well as anything else lying around in your head.”–Nicolas Rapold, The Village Voice (contemporaneous)

“Reznick draws on the non-narrative avant-garde for inspiration; ultimately, his movie has as much in common with David Lynch’s weirdest moments or Stan Brakhage as The Blair Witch Project.”–Steve Erickson, Baltimore City Paper (contemporaneous)

OFFICIAL SITE: I Can See You

IMDB LINKI Can See You (2008)

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

Have an Alt-Horror Halloween – Salon.com film critic Andrew O’Hehir made I Can See You a top pick among recent non-formulaic horror movies

DVD INFO:  The Kino International DVD release (buy) does an excellent job packing the disc with special features, particularly for a niche product.  It features a commentary track with director Reznick and the three main actors which contains some good information but gets a bit chummy at times; there’s a constant feeling that there may be some inside jokes that are going over the listener’s head.  Other features are 20 minutes of minimally edited behind the scenes footage shot by executive producer Fessenden, four deleted scenes and a reel of outtakes, and a still gallery.

The real treasure on the disc, however, is Reznick’s complete fifteen minute, 3-D short film The Viewer.  The sci-fi scenario concerns a future where technology allows investigators to enter criminals’ brains and view their memories; the suspect here psychically resists interrogation.  Though the story is underdeveloped and leaves the real-life viewer hanging, but visually it’s quite effective and interesting, with some of the same psychedelic spirit of I Can See You (The Viewer was made to be shown before the feature at the opening).  The short film contains a tech-heavy commentary which will be of interest to professional types.  NOTE: although The Viewer can be watched with the naked eye, to see the three dimensional effects, red-blue 3-D glasses are required.  These are supplied with the DVD purchase, but not available via most rental outlets.

6 thoughts on “41. I CAN SEE YOU (2008)”

  1. “The lack of resonance with anything outside of Ben, with anything in our worlds, makes the movie less than what it might otherwise have been. We remain nothing but observers of Ben’s fractured psyche.” Such a conclusion would discourage both the readers of the review and the potential viewers if not your closing phrase which perfectly dots all “i’s” and crosses all “t’s”—“But that can be something both lovely and terrifying to look at.” A wonderful analysis!

  2. Just saw this. Great film. It went on feeling a little over-scripted for a while (as you said, too deliberate, too faux-naturalistic), but the intense cerebral breakdown of the second half totally redeemed the entire thing.

    Being a fan of Lynch, I couldn’t help thinking that this has a VERY strong David Lynch homage. The microphone in the woods, the red curtains, the sappy 50’s kitsch underwritten with menace — Ben basically takes a trip to the Black Lodge for a while, and then comes back to his own movie.

    Also, the slow zoom into the black hole in the painting’s face… haven’t seen that kind of unnerving suspense on film in a while, and it was really refreshing.

  3. I just saw this movie and I found it somewhat strange but interesting at the same time. Think i will watch it again if I have the opportunity.

  4. The biggest hurdle this film had to overcome was the fact that NONE of the principals were even remotely likable. I mean, I was there for the narrative and all its weirdness, but was constantly put off by the unpleasantness of pretty much every character interaction. A shame, really, because there was talent on display here.

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