“Alfred Eaker’s Fringe Cinema” is an irregularly published column covering truly independent cinema: the stuff that’s so far under the public radar it may as well be underground. The folks making these films may be starving artists today, but they may be recognized as geniuses tomorrow. We hope to look like geniuses ourselves by being the first to cover them.
Producer/Director/Writer Jakob Bilinski and his Cinephreak Pictures have released three of Bilinski’s films to date, including the recently completed Shade of Grey (2009) (being taken to film festivals now).
Bilinski is a director’s director who has an obvious love for and mastery of the medium. On the surface, Mime (2005), Foxxy Madonna vs. the Black Death (2007) and the previously mentioned Shade would seem to have little in common, but watching the three works consecutively is a rewarding experience in the best of independent cinema, in ways mainstream Hollywood Cinema simply can’t be and, frankly, is too clueless to be.
Bilinski tackles different genres in each of the three films, but all are replete with the director’s personal touches, shared, underlining, flowing themes, and the beauty of an artistic and fiercely independent struggle that can only be achieved without a tinsel town, silver platter budget handed via a blank check.
A lot of independent filmmakers fall too easily into the trap of flexing worn on the sleeve, extrovert aesthetics, which scream “resume for a Hollywood deal,” in favor of originality. Adhering to the tried and true formula trumps personality as much in indie fare as it does in the mainstream, but not so with Bilinski. While his enthusiasm for the craft is apparent from the outset, he never allows a desire for display of that craft to blur individuality.
Mime is the first film Bilinski released and it’s a broad comedy which stems from the Theater of the Absurd. It starts like an arch typical indie slasher film. Couples are making out in a park at night and the grainy camera work here is a quirky homage to every cheesy B grade horror opening we’ve been subjected to. The protagonist Mime Binky (Joe Grace) stalks his victim (Bryan McKinley) and mercilessly commits a horrendous
Mime murder upon the poor unsuspecting guy. This innocent and decent community is shocked when it witnesses this act of Mime violence right in their own neighborhood and they take appropriate action. Absurdist Lang is unleashed; one witness brands the fleeing Binky with an “M” on his back and soon the hunter has become the hunted. Binky loses his hat twice during the ensuing chase (and continues knocking off his hat throughout the film). The local neighborhood crime stoppers soon overtake the painted freak invader, beat, and apprehend him, but their community will be forever scarred.
An over brightly lit police interrogation of the victim hilariously captures the essence of countless like-minded scenes from those darling 70’s cop shows. Bilinski directs the two actors Brian Jones and Mike Manetta as over the top, melodramatic detectives. His fluid camera work and compositions effectively capture the Aaron Spelling flavor.
The trial is a send up of reality court TV with a transsexual, a Cousin It look-alike and a clown among the jurors, a crack whore witness, a mannequin, and an overly amorous, presiding judge, played by Jomar ‘Dez’ Banks. Banks is an actor Bilinski utilizes in all three films and clearly enjoys working with. It’s easy to see why; Banks relishes acting and his role here has an infectious charm. All the actors here have personality, are colorful and likable.
The absurd meter entirely goes off the scale during the trial. Josh Gaboian’s Defense Attorney commendably keeps a straight face when he mugs Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men and when he differentiates between clown and mime. There’s even an ode to O.J. Simpson scene, with an ill-fitting glove, but it’s the finale, complete with hokey narration, that seals this as quirky caricature.
Foxxy Madonna vs. the Black Death is a film Bilinski and Cinephreak Pictures did for the 48 film project with Tao Films. The DVD has both the extended director’s cut and the the shorter 48 film cut. Foxxy is Bilinski’s valentine to 70’s grindhouse films and, yes, he did it before the Tarantino/Rodriguez opus (and it certainly trumps the Tarantino entry on a slither of the budget).
Foxxy is a load of fun that pays tribute to the genre it embraces and still manages to be original; an extreme rarity. More often than not, genre directors (especially horror genre directors) tend to approach film like approaching a paint by numbers set. They follow their imagined rule book of exactly what the genre is supposed to do and not supposed to do, adhere to every tired cliche and never once venture outside the lines. The rule book is merely a rough sketch stepping stone for Bilinski and that’s what makes this film so refreshing.
A “Mission Impossible”-type priest secret agent (!) goes up against the evil Black Death, vampires, and …, well you name it. Biblical overtones abound. Monica Barajas and Jomar “Dex” Banks are the leads and they are terrific. Banks infuses his antagonist Black Death with so much personality in such a short span of time, that rooting a bit for him almost amounts to a guilty pleasure, but this is not a case of the devil and his forces of evil being more interesting than the good guys, because Barajas matches Banks scene for scene. A good majority of the Bond films could learn a bit from this indie short… simply have a villain with as much personality as the hero. It must have been a pleasure directing these two actors as they played off one another and that pleasure is contagious.
Bilinski is more self assured in his stylistic approach here than he was in Mime and the sole drawback to Foxxy is it’s brief length. One wishes that there had been time and budget to develop both the narrative and characterizations to a feature length–which leads to Shade of Grey.
Bilinski actually shot Shade before Foxxy, but completed the short first. In lieu of this information, Foxxy understandably seems like a letting down of one’s hair because with Shade Bilinski delves much deeper.
Here, Bilinski is really striving for something. The premise is a subtly surreal drama of a metaphorical hotel room in which the viewer becomes voyeur to virtually every aspect of the human condition in it’s many faceted complexities. Pathos, bathos, nobility and banality are vivid and unforgettable colors in Bilinski’s spectrum. The lives of the guests coming in and out of the hotel room weave together within a frail fabric. This is a profound spiritual journey, which wisely does not condescend to the level of attempting to offer up anything remotely resembling an answer.
One of the many beauties in Shade is the fully fleshed characterizations. Virtually everyone in the film has flaws, yet Bilinski’s skill at portraiture is so seasoned and assured that no character comes off as two dimensional, nor without a degree of sympathy and this is masterful narrative. There are long, sustained pauses, beautifully filmed, which will challenge viewers in the way great art should challenge, but like all great art, this will make for a much more rewarding experience.
The visual style of Shade also reveals Bilinski’s craftsmanship evolving; the film is simply exquisite visual story telling. Bilinski’s love of the medium is apparent in virtually every frame. The greatest power of Shade is in the juxtaposition of Bilinski’s visual narrative against the unfolding of his conceptual tapestry. It’s primary weakness lies in quite a bit of the acting. This is a film which requires seasoned actors with the ability to internalize and, frankly, several of the actors are not up to the level of Bilinski’s direction. Monica Barajas and Jomar ‘Dez’ Banks are actors here who deliver performances on par with the direction.
A second, much more minor weakness is that some of the scenes go on a shade too long (i.e., the kissing scene).
Shade of Grey is a flawed, but excellent film. It’s a film that constantly surprises and one is never sure exactly what is going to unfold. In one brief vignette, a gigolo clown is introduced (which must be a first). In lesser hands, this could come off unintentionally comic, but Bilinski balances a cool tone with the right degree of subtle, erotic intimacy and pulls it off magnificently. It’s all the better for the way it flows in and departs like an atmospheric breeze. In a second vignette, Banks appears in a drug deal with dire consequences. The unpredictable result is startling and swift, much like the inexplicable tragedies in life.
Describing the plot in detail simply does not do Shade justice because this would reduce the film to a mere movie going experience. Shade of Grey is well beyond that and is a film that is all the more rewarding with repeated viewings.
As good as Mime and Foxxy Madonna vs. the Black Death are, they pale in the artistic triumph and achievement that is Shade of Grey.
Bilinski’s art will only improve and a word of advice to producers: give Jakob Bilinski a hefty check, a seasoned casting director to work with and then stay the hell out of his way, you won’t regret it.
-Alfred Eaker is the director of Jesus and Her Gospel of Yes!, voted Best Experimental Film in the 2004 New York International Film and Video Festival, and the feature W the Movie.