Saturday, October 10, 2009

Chiaroscuro Baby

Chiaroscuro, Baby begins with a jolt of frenetic energy uncommon in typically-contemplative Jacksonville film offerings: A stylish, rock n roll-meets-art title sequence worthy of a Russ Meyer film which serves to, visually, introduce the characters. Additionally, we're introduced to the film's retro-fitted 60s mise en scene; the comparison to Russ Meyer was deliberate.

The protagonist, Calvin, is a struggling artist, a statement which may be redundant; show me an artist who isn't struggling. The relationship with his long-time, live-in girlfriend, Nancy, like his art, has grown stagnant. He stumbles, uninspired, through his day-to-day life and his art suffers for the banality of these circumstances.

It is clear from the moment that Nancy steps into frame that she is the antagonist. Without saying a word, it is all-too-obvious that Calvin views his relationship with Nancy as a burden, perhaps even an annoyance but, as we will learn, Calvin has trouble making up his own mind. No matter, Nancy is happy to do it for him.

Perhaps just as critical to the story as art, is sex: sex as a weapon. Nancy preys on all that is supposed to be desired by the one-dimensional, carnal male and she uses that to emasculate Calvin, compromise his art, and justify her own lifestyle. It is worth mentioning, Calvin and Nancy are in an open relationship, only Calvin doesn't know this yet.

Nancy insists on a career change which seems to work out. She uses this small success to leverage Calvin into switching mediums: from painting to collage. Calvin resists, caves, and soon, Nancy has used her connections to showcase Calvin's work for Arthur Profit; a very important associate of a very important JJ Willard.

The show is an overwhelming success and before you know it, Calvin and Nancy are the toast of the town: A hot young up-and-coming artist with his centerfold girlfriend free to drink, drug, and swing all on Arthur Profit's dime. And Calvin SHOULD want these things, right? I mean, what guy wouldn't want to quit his job, have someone pay his expenses, and live with a girl that brings home other girls?

Nancy and Calvin's dynamic is epitomized when a marriage proposal leads to a discussion about Calvin taking Nancy's last name which would make him Calvin Floyd. Truth be told, he is already Calvin Floyd. He is Nancy's creation. His habits, his lifestyle, even his art have all been dictated by Nancy.

At the center of his artistic/moral dilemma is a spunky (and somewhat annoying) photographer, Marjorie. After a few awkward encounters, Marjorie is posing nude for one of Calvin's paintings. The art, like the relationship with Marjorie, is kept from Nancy.

Marjorie reignites Calvin's passion for painting; however, Arthur Profit is not paying Calvin to paint. JJ Willard is not coming all the way from New York to look at paintings. And that is the conflict or, as Nancy argues early in the film:

"Some times you have to choose between what you want... and what you NEED."

Perhaps my favorite line of dialogue is spoken by the character Alice, Marjorie's roommate, who says, frankly, what the entire audience is thinking, "Rumor has it your girlfriend is a raging cunt." A raging cunt and an effective villain.

Calvin seeks refuge from Nancy with a few close friends. One of these friends is Calvin's gay neighbor/landlord, Ash, who delivers the following bit of dialogue while confessing a severe drug addiction, dramatic irony intact, "Just be glad you know who you are." Calvin hasn't quite figured that out yet.

The film follows Calvin's descent as his career ascends. I'd suggest paying special attention to the exciting opening sequence as a point of comparison for Calvin's art, juxtaposed against the dull, elitist, bourgeois scene surrounding the work of "Calvin Floyd" in the film's final sequence.

The film itself is fun to watch. Props must be given to the filmmakers for accurately reproducing the look and feel of a 60s film, imperfections and all. Whether all the imperfections were deliberate or accidental is of no consequence, the style being emulated was imperfect and they've succeeded in perfecting imperfection.

The film is not cut as tight as some films of that era and, instead, it seems to have more in common with meditative 70s films. This will almost certainly render it inaccessible to large audiences whose attention spans have been greatly reduced in an era of music video-style editing. That fatigue aside, the film could stand some tightening and that is my only real criticism. Some scenes tend to linger beyond what seems like the obvious conclusion to reveal nothing. This is being billed as an "Art" film and has been produced without catering to the needs of the masses. Still the "art crowd's" time is valuable and, sometimes, I wished the movie would move along.

Chiaroscuro, Baby is not just a good film by Jacksonville standards, it is a good film. The fact that a local group of filmmakers, actors, artists, and musicians mobilized and produced this should be a rallying cry to ALL area artists. You don't have to move to New York or Los Angeles and struggle to surround yourself with the "right people" which is a particularly daunting task considering how overwhelmingly unoriginal that notion is. Take a look at the city around you. It can be done. It has been done. Chiaroscuro is a testament to that.

I sincerely hope that the community can generate some momentum and follow Killacozy's lead.

-Samuel Farmer

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