Wednesday, 2 October 2013
A Fungi To Be With
Directed by Jesse Barack
Polypore is one of those movies that creeps up on you with its stealth powers, courts you for a while and then takes you completely by surprise.
When director Jesse Barack contacted me on Twitter via DM and asked if I’d take a look at it for him, I must admit I was just a little cynical about the quality of the product... not his fault, I’ve just developed a kind of negative assumption about the majority of films shot low budget without any major cinema and DVD release these days so my natural response to these movies is to keep very much in the distance unless specifically asked. But I was asked and I really don’t like to turn down somebody when they’ve gone to the trouble of actually asking me to take a look at something.
There are so many independent directors starting out on their first few movies these days on twitter and the majority of them tend to approach you by following you and then, because they’ve clicked on follow, expect you to automatically give up your time to check out the links on their profile and watch their stuff. Nothing wrong with this approach but I tend to not be able to get around to things for a little while (this blog is not my 9 to 5 job people, it’s something I do because I’m passionate about the subject matter). Usually the people in question have unfollowed me again after a week and I don’t get to know whether they wanted me to check out their stuff or not.
However, like I said, well done to Barack for actually asking me to watch his stuff... and also a grateful thank you too, I think, because, quite frankly, although the film is obviously low budget, it’s also absolutely riveting and just looks great. I was pretty surprised at just how much I enjoyed it, to be honest with you. Put it this way, I watched the first episode of Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D when it aired the night before I watched Polypore and, seriously, Polypore blew it out of the water.
So, okay. First question first. What is a polypore?
Well I didn’t know either but it’s made clear in the film its a medicinal fungi with, in the case of this movie, the power to give its “users” supernatural abilities. I was wondering if the writer/director was basing this on anything specific and a quick trip to Wikipedia afterwards gave me the following information... “Polypores are a group of fungi that form fruiting bodies with pores or tubes on the underside...” and “Polypores are used in traditional medicine, and they are actively studied for their medicinal value and various industrial applications. Several polypore species are serious pathogens of plantation trees and major causes of timber spoilage.”
So okay... it’s “medicinal” mushrooms then.
Now this is a great set up for a movie as it happens. The particular brand of polypore used in this film becomes the impetus for the plot, not as a thing which everybody is after but because of the fallout from the polypore and the knowledge of this particular “strain” of them.
Polypore starts out with an absolutely brilliant opening credits piece which immediately shows you how the world of the film is going to be. A hard hitting sequence of mixed textures opening on a photographic still of a man picked out in a black and white shot. He is already tied up and in the next shot, which is in colour, he is dragged out of a room. There’s something almost “Soviet Propaganda” in the way this guy is singled out from the action in this manner on the opening close up, in that it’s very similar to the technique Sergei Eisenstein used to use to pick people out in isolation from a crowd or a group in a scene. Highlighting details when a zoom lens was not something he had at his disposal. I noticed that Barack does not use moving camera that much, nor various zoom lens style techniques in this movie, so I’m not sure if he was particularly aware he was doing this in this manner as anything other than a standard solution to a commitment not to go with dollying in or panning, but it’s certainly there. The rest of the opening is a mixture of colour footage of such things as an Asian actor finding a book and some gruesome, mostly off camera at this stage in the film, violence which culminates just below the periphery in the sawing off of someone’s head and a look from a pretty girl. And I don’t think we’re even 2 minutes into the movie yet.
But all of this rich textural palette is already pushing the “pseudo-typage” technique I’m talking about and this continues at various points during the movie... as does the continued use of multiple ways of shooting and presenting a static image (static in camera movement that is, not in terms of movement within a shot). It’s also unconsciously telling us, the audience, that we may be in for a bit of a ride and have something unsettling to look forward to for the next 68 minutes. Which we do.
The scene changes and we meet the middle aged father and mother of the film’s main protagonist, Paul (played by Jeffrey Bielat and, also, by Chen Tang... look, don’t ask and I won’t tell, okay?). For the first 10 minutes or so we see the relationship between the unemployed Paul and his (get up and get a job) father and also get flashes of his friends, Trent (played by the writer/director Jesse Barack) and Sebastian (played by Kyle Barry). They both come back later in the narrative in pretty important ways but right now they are just here, it seems to me, to highlight them as friends of Paul and also to continue the frenetic, unsettling pacing which the film does so well.
Also intercut into this part of the film and further scattered about in other sections of the running time, are sections of news footage and fake advertisements used to set the scene of the movie so we can understand the way people behave. Going by the footage it’s a pretty sound guess to say we are somewhere in the near future where huge corporations are running the planet even more overtly than they are already now and the whole mix of styles in what I shall call the “TV eye” parts of the movie are very much the visual equivalent of the experimental chapter openings of John Dos Passos celebrated novels forming his USA Trilogy back in the 1930s. Setting the tone and informing the viewers by throwing mixed chunks of relevant data at them... perhaps more modern analogies of what Barack is doing here can be found in the similar sequences in the original Robocop movie or the original comic book of Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns.
He even goes so far as to run the little newsfeed sections of text at the bottom of the screen, not all of which you will be able to concentrate on and catch on the first viewing but which are both chilling and absurd in equal measure... and sometimes just downright funny. Although, some of the feeds certainly aren’t what I would consider “news of the future”. For example, its been known for a very long time that pineapples are known to improve the taste of semen... at least that’s how I’ve been reliably informed by various lady friends over the years. But this and other little factoids will probably bring a smile to your face if you happen to glance down and catch one.
It’s through these news items that it’s intimated by association that Paul’s mother has been taking pharmaceuticals put out by a specific big company and when the side effects cause her to vomit into a plant, Paul rescues the plant from where it’s been taken out of the house and it’s here that the Polypore of the title grows and sets the chain of events moving. It also quickly sums up the kind of marriage Paul’s mother is living in that she feels the need to take happy pills and although we don’t see her character again, it’s little details like this kind of shorthand, entering through the subconscious of the audience, that really makes Polypore stand out above many other low budget films competing with it for your time. And it’s exactly this kind of follow through of an internal logic to the world created by the writer that a lot of Hollywood science fiction movies these days seem to be forgetting to do. This shows a certain amount of respect for the audience and its things like this which are a credit to the director.
Anyhow, a quick search of the internet sets Paul on the trail of the knowledge contained in a book which was never published. A book written by three ghost writers (one of whom has vanished but is pretty obviously one of the poor victims in the opening credits sequence) who are now in hiding and have kept even the publishing house of this book a secret. So says Sebastian, who writes a letter to Paul before... something else happens. I think that’s as much of the opening plot as I really want to tell you because Polypore is a movie which needs to surprise you in the right ways and at its own pace.
What I will say is that the attention to detail in the film is more than I expected. Cans of drink with no label, for example, is perhaps another nod to the nature of the government in this near future (and although I suspect there was a practical reason for this... well don’t shun serendipity as an important part of the creative process is all I’m saying).
The nature of the photography and treatment of the footage is, for the most part, very clean and uncluttered in well composed, static frames which let the power of the editing push to the forefront. Having said that, the team of film-makers involved still manage to give the set design the feeling that you are living in a real environment... and although the shots feel uncluttered in most places, they are certainly not operating with under-dressed sets. The whole tone may, I admit, sound like it’s fairly uneven. Perhaps it is... but the director does an absolutely superb job of pulling everything together here and making it so you won’t feel like anything is really out of place. It just works.
He also does this at a content level too, as the film ranges from sinister, to intriguing, to violent, to bleak but hilariously funny comedy and then cycles back through to something else, without giving you any pause for thought and making sure you can still enjoy all this stuff fairly smoothly, and be engaged by it, without getting pulled out of the experience too much in a Godardian way. There’s even a wonderful sequence done as a cartoon which is fantastic and doesn’t feel in any way like a false note within the tone of the piece, even when he recuts pieces of this animated footage in again as visual reminders back amongst the live action stuff later in the movie. It all just works so well and, honestly, I’m not too sure why we havent heard more of this guy and why an expanded version of this hasn’t been commissioned for a cinema release. I know if I’d had seen this exact thing at a cinema, I would have definitely bought the DVD too, on that kind of release cycle.
The director doesn’t so much wear his influences on his sleeve as tap into a collective psyche of science fiction and horror writers who have gone before him. Certainly fans of the oeuvre of David Cronenberg or the novels of Philip K. Dick won’t feel out of place looking at this kind of material. There’s also a very big homage to one of the films of David Lynch, I suspect, but I don’t want to spoil that particular revelation for potential viewers either... so I’ll just leave it at “it’s fairly Lynchian and not just in its surrealistic tone and lighting” and leave it at that, I think. I genuinely feel this is a film that you should watch going in knowing as little as possible so... it can sneak up on you from behind and hit you with its full aesthetic weight and range.
And then Troma Studios' Lloyd Kaufman shows up.
And don’t let that put you off... he’s always been a supporter of the arts in a way and, whether you like the kind of movies he puts out or not, this doesn’t share the same universe as the Troma pictures. But Kaufman is very funny and expertly placed in the movie when things have already started getting a bit absurd. I was amazed that Barack could handle the many shifts in emotional response throughout so well and, not just the director either...
The score by Patrick Watson and Dominick Gray shifts tonally from various dark and broody tracks to more inspirational and even, in a few sequences, a little bit Hermannesque when it comes to the “comedy writing”. Think of a smaller version of Bernard Herrman’s score for Hitchcock’s comedy The Trouble With Harry... it kind of goes into that territory at some point... although it’s the broody and inspirational stuff which made it on to the downloadable soundtrack album. It works really well though and is an effective support and a not bad stand alone listen (yeah, I already bought a copy before even sitting down to write this review, thanks).
I was really happy with this film and, as I said in my possibly overlong intro, very glad the director of this work of art brought this to my attention. If you like micro-budget features which bravely delve into territory usually reserved for big budget movie making, then I think you’ll find Polypore one of the more surprising movies you’ll see this year. It’s available for rental at Vimeo here and I strongly recommend you give this one a chance if you like hard edged science fiction. I was, as you can probably tell, very taken with this movie.
The soundtrack is available for download at Amazon here and at the itunes store on all good computers.