“It was just an extra splash of weird. We decided it wasn’t weird enough to begin with, so what can we really do to make this weird?”–Kiowa Winans on Ink‘s DVD commentary [explaining why the Incubi staves end in human hands]
FEATURING: (as Chris Kelly), Quinn Hunchar, Jessica Duffy, Jeremy Make, Jennifer Batter
PLOT: Ink introduces us to a world where a race of guardian angels called “Storytellers” guard over humanity and bring pleasant dreams while we sleep, while the evil “Incubi” sneak by our bedsides and send nightmares. One night, a mysterious cowled and chained figure comes into the room of a sleeping girl, defeats the assembled Storytellers, and snatches the child away to a limbo halfway between the waking and dreaming worlds. Meanwhile, in the earthly realm, the girl’s body lapses into a coma, while her estranged, workaholic father refuses to leave a billion dollar contract he’s working on to visit his daughter in the hospital.
- Jamin Winans not only wrote, edited and directed the film, but also composed the soundtrack. Jamin’s wife Kiowa handled both sound design and art direction as well as serving as producer.
- The movie was made for only $250,000.
- Ink won the Best International Feature award at the Cancun Film Festival.
- Despite faring well on the festival circuit, Ink was not picked up by a distributor; the producers self-distributed the movie to a few cinemas and oversaw the DVD and Blu-ray releases themselves.
- After its DVD release, Ink was downloaded 400,000 times, becoming one of the ten most pirated features of the week of its release alongside major Hollywood films like Zombieland. On the official website, the filmmakers request voluntary donations from those who watched the movie for free.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: The Incubi, demons for the digital age. Unmasked, these shadowy figures with glowing spectacles have become the film’s iconic poster image, but they are even more frightening when they hide their true visages behind happy-face projections flickering on perpetually on-the-fritz LCD monitors affixed to their heads.
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Ink taps into the beautifully frightening, often disquieting aesthetic of fairy tales, mixing high-tech nightmare visions with ancient storytelling traditions to create a new mythology that’s simultaneously progressive and connected to the past. It blunts its weirdness by resolving its symbolism completely by the end, although the literal plot resolution remains a paradox. Even though all becomes clear by the end, the early reels can be a wild ride.
Original trailer for Ink
COMMENTS: “Ink has been compared to cult classics Brazil, Donnie Darko, The Matrix, Dark City and Pan’s Labyrinth…” trumpet the film’s makers in their press releases. Other critics see echoes of David Lynch and Jeanne-Pierre Jeunet, and I’ll throw another visionary modern take on the fairy tale, Tim Burton‘s Edward Scissorhands, into the mix. That’s a roll call of influences that’s bound to cause some salivating among weird movie lovers; the question is, does Ink belong in that august company?
The short answer is, yes; although Ink doesn’t quite scale the heights of the cited classics, it does earn the right to be mentioned in the same breath. This entire comparison exercise, however, is a slight to Ink‘s originality. As a critical response to the film, this list-making reveals reviewers who are stymied by the task of describing a film that doesn’t quite fit comfortably into a genre box (the shout-outs to other visionary films and directors makes perfect sense as a marketing choice, on the other hand). The drawback to the stream of name-dropping is that it may give the mistaken impression that Ink is derivative and unoriginal, and suggest that it’s a deliberate attempt to make a “cult film.” Leaving aside the mega-hit The Matrix, the movies named in the press release actually share only a few factors with each other. The main thing that brings them to mind in the context of Ink is that they all use elements of fantasy and aggressively creative visual spectacle to explore themes that go beyond rote Hollywood adventure storytelling. To say that Ink belongs in their company is to say little more than that it’s a thoughtful, ambitious fantasy that will appeal to adventurous movie lovers more than the general public.
At bottom, Ink is a story about redemption, and the relationship between a father and his estranged daughter. It’s not exactly a spoiler to point out that the fairy tale child-snatching by the shaggy, hunched Ink symbolizes that sad and strained relationship. The allegory is simple and obvious, clean and elegant, like the best metaphors. The dream world and real world storylines converge by the midpoint of the movie, but the daddy-daughter drama and the epic dream quest feed off each other with a near perfect synergy. Without the emotional subtext, the dream plot would have no heart and would just be a feeble low-budget attempt at a Hollywood fantasy. Without the psychic epic playing in the background, John’s workaholism and alienation from his offspring would come off as trite, movie-of-the-week stuff. Ink‘s achievement is to materialize a world where invisible metaphysical armies clash over the souls of simple folk with all the fervor of a war fought for oil or for Islam, a fight where each decision a man makes is a strike or a blunder in a grand campaign where failure means damnation. The climax, a simple walk down a brightly-lit hospital corridor re-imagined as an epic melee between clean-cut dream warriors and the glowing, grinning forces of psychic defeatism seen through green night-vision goggles, works both as an action set-piece and a heart-tugging triumph.
To point out that Ink‘s symbolism is straightforward isn’t to say that there aren’t still surprises and “a-ha!” moments to be found in the precise ways the script lines up the correspondences between the two planes of existence. The final revelation is an unexpected and paradoxical gambit that’s impossible to guess in advance.
Ink is itself a dream, but it’s not the deranged dream of a Lynch or a Maddin. The Winans aren’t dedicated to the irrational; on the contrary, they’re concurrently building a dream and a complete guide to interpreting it. They employ surreal imagery, such as the Plexiglas faceguards of the Incubi, as embellishments to create a feeling of dread, detachment and unease. They simultaneously provide thematic and plot reassurances that, come dawn, the light of understanding will burn away the nightmare fog of confusion. This orientation obviously dents Ink‘s weird cred somewhat, marking the film as “pop-weird”—a work that dips one foot into the pool of dreams, while keeping the other firmly rooted in reality. The film takes us sightseeing into marvelous and forbidding lands, but makes sure that the tour-bus is always within sight, so there’s no danger of getting permanently stranded in a weird place.
The Winans do a fine job of having it both ways, satisfying both those who demand the safety net of a logical “meaning” to justify any deviation from strict realism and those who only want to wonder for wonder’s sake. Ink offers plenty of psychedelic candy to satisfy the dedicated weird movie fan. The smiley-faced Incubi, some of the scariest oneiric creatures to stalk the screen in the last decade, are an obvious draw. The first fifteen minutes, which mix bits and pieces of backstory with dips into the dreams of various sleepers, have a delightfully weightless feeling; Ink starts with a wandering mind, beginning as if the movie itself is drifting off to the land of Nod. The dream world characters are known to us as much by their archetypal roles—Storyteller, Warrior, Pathfinder, Drifter—as by their quirks of character, giving the proceedings a mythic heft. There’s a long cause-and-effect chain of events sequence in the middle of the film that plays like a tribute to the teardrop scene from The City of Lost Children. And, while the central thrust of the tale is clear, in the best fairy tale tradition there are frayed edges to the tapestry with threads that stray delightfully off the path, such the vain lost soul Ink and his prisoners encounter who demands locks of a Storyteller’s hair as payment for a key piece of the puzzle.
While Ink is a welcome thinking-man’s fantasy that hits its emotional target, it’s not a perfect film. Though the visual look is unique, and works well given the filmmakers’ scare resources, I instinctively found myself missing the splendors that might have been birthed if the filmmakers had a been working with a Gilliam-sized budget. At times, the low-tech effects can be distracting. Rather than using makeup, the blind Seer Jacob has X-shaped bands of duct tape covering his eyes, an effect that’s almost comical. The acting is always competent, but other than Chris Kelly, none of the characters really stick their difficult emotional marks. Jacob, the Pathfinder who is a mystical figure to mystical figures, also provides the film with the little comic relief it has. Unfortunately, although his introduction scene is amusing, the rest of the way character’s humor is limited to suddenly shouting at his teammates at unexpected times (“tell her what she’s won, Bob!”) The Pathfinder is the kind of supporting character that, if executed beautifully, could have moved the movie up a notch, from very good to nearly great.
Finally, the rapid-fire editing seems more trendy than energetic, and can grow tiresome. In the fight scenes, editing appears to be used either as a cheap substitute for athletic fight choreography, or as footage for a résumé reel for a future action movie application, proving that Winans can manufacture a confusing heat-of-battle scenes just like J.J. Abrams does. At other times, the lightning fast, stuttering edits are used to create a feeling of disorientation and otherworldliness. This was a great effect when Guy Maddin pioneered the style in the 1990s, because he had the chutzpah to use it unflinchingly, as a blunt weapon against the audience, until they were dazed by it. When deployed in small doses as shorthand to show that the protagonist is suffering a dissociative break with reality (as the technique was also used in Stay), it’s less effective, and may even annoy some viewers. I fear the style is already coming dangerously close to developing into a weird film cliché.
But to end back where we started: should Ink be compared to “cult classics like Brazil, Donnie Darko, The Matrix, Dark City and Pan’s Labyrinth“? On one level, the answer’s a clear yes: despite the wide variations in tone between the cited movies, people who loved those eccentric fantasies stand a much better chance of grooving to Ink. But the entire exercise begs the question, why are both the critics and the filmmakers themselves so anxious to compare Ink, which is not entirely sui generis but is also about as far from a formula pic as you’ll find in any given year, to other movies? I think the answer may be that there is a hunger out there for thoughtfully conceived, visually inventive, unique movies that dispense with the constrictive rules of reality. Judging from the years between similar releases and the feverish raves when something vaguely fitting the description finally trudges along, it’s a hunger that’s underserved, for a genre that’s largely undefined.
Excerpts from Pamela DeGraff’s dissenting opinion: Just because a movie employs an unconventional storytelling technique, has an atypical story to tell, or strives to use the medium in an unusual way doesn’t make it weird to me. For what Ink set out to be, I thought it was done fairly predictably.
Ink is well produced, and whether or not one will enjoy it depends upon one’s tastes and cinematic expectations. Hardcore fantasy fanatics who value visual spectacle over logical structure will love it. Viewers who require an easily discernible high concept and logical cause and effect may find it complex and unfocused. The production design is a mixture of steampunk modernism and “Alice in Wonderland” dreamscape. There is a lot of undulating, oscillating, constantly shifting color and shading. Psychotic editing blurs the boundaries between dreams and reality. The editing creates disturbing, discordant imagery and instills an air of mystery and ambiguity. It engages the audience in the absence of compelling ideas.
The plot is secondary to Ink’s visual impact. As an undesired, but required structural necessity, the plot must have seemed like an encumbrance to Winans. While the good and evil allegory is simplistic, it is presented without exposition, making the film confusing and difficult to follow. There is no premise that lays down a given set of rules that the characters must obey, or laws that they are subject to. The story makes itself up as it goes along. The Storytellers’ actions are without a plan and they invent special powers on demand. The characters are undeveloped and difficult to empathize with. Ink’s storyline does not reveal its direction until two thirds of the way through the film. It is hard to take an interest in the characters’ struggles when we cannot comprehend their goals or motives. Without a sense of purpose, Ink becomes tiresome despite its visual brilliance. It’s a cinematic impasto that is resplendent with intriguing, but unexplained vignettes. The film is a deliberate attempt to make a mind blowing odyssey; however, without linear structure, the storyline is indecipherable. Ink had the potential to direct its budget and effects toward a serious plot. Instead, it places a stunning superficiality over substance.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“The cinematic influences are almost too numerous to mention in the assured action fantasy ‘Ink,’ including Terry Gilliam and Guillermo del Toro, with liberal helpings of David Lynch and the Wachowski brothers… there’s a rapacious DIY showmanship at work here reminiscent of the calling-card chutzpah Robert Rodriguez and Peter Jackson showed in scrappier, pre-blockbuster days.”–Robert Abele, The Los Angeles Times (contemporaneous)
“…Ink has all the ambition of a Terry Gilliam or Jean-Pierre Jeunet epic, but since none of the studios bit, the writer-director decided to make it himself with next-to-no money, a bold gambit a viewer can respect even while wishing the final project were remotely as grandiose as the auteur’s aspirations.”–Luke Y. Thompson, L.A. Weekly (contemporaneous)
OFFICIAL SITES: The Official Ink Store
IMDB LINK: Ink (2009)
OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:
Double Edge Films Blog – infrequently updated, but it contains behind the scenes insight from Kiowa Winans on the making and promotion of Ink
Filmmakers Jamin Winans and Kiowa Winans on LA Talk Radio’s Film Courage – podcast of an hour-long interview with the Winans from the LA talk radio program Film Courage, focusing on business aspects of releasing the film
Filmmakers Thank Movie Piracy for Popularity – an article explaining how piracy via torrent downloads helped create a buzz and a fanbase for Ink
Interview: Jamin Winans of Ink – interview with the director courtesy of the Denver branch of the Onion A.V. Club
Ink Fan Site– this site was probably up before the movie was even released. Contains exclusive interviews with cast and crew.
DVD INFO: The self-produced DVD (buy) features a commentary track with the husband and wife team of Jamins and Kiowa discussing every aspect of the film; ten (actually eight and a half) minutes of behind-the-scenes footage; a cool and comic conversation between Chris Kelly and charming child star Quinn Hunchar; a deleted scene (with commentary); and two trailers. Ink is also available in Blu-ray (buy) with the same features.