Thursday, August 13, 2009

I Sell the Dead

This review was originally published here on Tiny Mix Tapes.

Dir. Glenn McQuaid

The term “low budget” is written all over writer/director Glenn McQuaid's debut feature film I Sell the Dead, both subtlety within the film and literally in the director's statements about it. In so many instances the term “low budget” is used as a general defense of a flawed portion or portions of a film. For instance if the cinematography seems to have been shot mostly with a Handicam or if the special effects appear to have been designed by a 15 year old boy with an unnerving idolatry of Stephen Segal movies. I Sell the Dead suffers from neither of these conditions but in a sense is still making excuses for itself. It is a study of how a film with all the potential to be perfectly good can fall by the wayside if all of its elements are not tended properly.

Like so many low budget films I Sell the Dead suffers from the theory that it is almost always easier to make a low budget comedy than a low budget drama. History has shown that a couple grand and a penchant for raunchy or corrupted dark humor can yield a noteworthy or even significant comedy. Low budget drama, on the other hand, rarely translates. Having lost the ability to turn in on itself and mock its own contemptible lack of funds, the low-budget drama tends to overdo it like a teenage drama queen with larger aspirations. It's those same aspirations and vanities that flourish in Hollywood where grit can be transformed into gold almost overnight. IStD is not a Hollywood movie but it is a highly stylish and insular piece of cinema. Starting as a manageable drama it quickly devolves into lowest common denominator comedy. It takes equally from the pulp fiction of comic books and cult nature of B-list horror films, with the built-in campiness of both. Although the film is at times tongue in cheek and at others painfully sincere its biggest hindrance is not its cast, crew, or plot but rather its director.

IStD is more an elongated montage than a film. Using the near cliché narrative device of a condemned criminal's flashbacks on a life spent in an underworld closed to the average law abiding citizen, in this case grave robbing, the methodical development of the film's protagonist, Arthur Blake (Dominic Monaghan), is inferred rather than shown, leaving the audience to fill in the evolutionary blank spots between his tales. As the film progresses these stories become increasingly outrageous, bordering on and finally plunging head first into fictional absurdity. The introduction of fantasy into the narrative doesn't necessarily ruin it but it is a detractor. The film also has a disagreeable tendency of being winkingly modern and inauthentic which may be more a flaw of budgetary restrictions than slack writing. Authenticity is a purchasable commodity in the film world. A big budget buys sets, experts and most importantly: time. Where Martin Scorsese has the time and financiers to make a bold period film like Gangs of New York other less fortunate (read: rightly legendary) directors have to make due with what they can get. In the end, what could have been a potentially interesting musing on life and death is turned into a farce. Still, this is not entirely uncommon in film and IStD might serve quite nicely alongside a film like Shaun of the Dead in the ever growing canon Zom-Com.

All this would have been tolerable, perhaps even seriously enjoyable if the film was not so painfully aimless. Despite being adequately cast and containing a visual ideal which at times borders on brilliantly original, the film lacks a distinct direction or message. Perhaps it is high-brow idealism to believe that a film should contain a definitive message. However it should at least have a point. Curiously similar to Albert Camus' first novel “A Happy Death”, IStD suffers from an eagerness to prove something and in the process forgets that it is supposed to be telling a story, a common syndrome of an artist's first work. Curiously what both need is to be condensed as Camus did when he ultimately re-drafted parts of that forgotten first novel into his unforgettable second “The Stranger”. If McQuaid can condense his ideas, extend his budget and knowledge, and most importantly focus inwardly on what he is trying to communicate he has a more than a fighting chance at becoming a memorable film maker. He already has the style, confidence and adept hand of an older, more experienced director. Now all he needs is to become settled. Though I Sell the Dead falls short of being a marked success due to certain aspects of it being left untended and others over cared for it is nonetheless a striking debut and an impressive film given its self-declared low-budget label.

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