Christian de Rezendes is a young Rhode Island-based filmmaker whose warm and loving documentary “Alzira: A Matriarch Tells Her Story” was among Film Threat’s Top 10 Unseen Films of 2000. This talented artist has returned with a remarkable feature called “Getting Out of Rhode Island” and this film deserves to be seen.
“Getting Out of Rhode Island” is wildly reckless on a variety of levels: its foundation is a fully improvised screenplay (which, more often than not in films, never clicks), its production style is Dogme-inspired cinematography (which can induce queasiness in even the strongest stomach), and its story is spread across an ensemble that is so large it makes Robert Altman’s films seem minimalist in comparison. Even more troubling is the plot, which is normally the anathema of anyone reviewing indie cinema: a movie about making a movie!
But in a small miracle, all of these sure-fire problems blend into something very different and devastating. With “Getting Out of Rhode Island,” de Rezendes has fashioned a visceral symphony of faces, thoughts, sounds and gestures that swirl with the fury of a typhoon. Anyone who approaches “Getting Out of Rhode Island” expecting connect-the-dots storytelling will be in for a rude and often violent surprise, as the film repeatedly challenges the mind while aiming a hard sock to the solar-plexus.
“Getting Out of Rhode Island” takes place on the Saturday night prior to Thanksgiving in a small town in northern Rhode Island. An unctuous would-be director named Morgan (Jeremy Banks) has partnered with a local wedding videographer of the unlikely moniker Quinley Blais (Ken Spassione) with the half-baked notion of turning their corner of New England into a new center for independent filmmaking. To launch their scheme, they’ve turned Quinley’s small home into a fundraising party to debut their plans and first film, something with the very un-Sundance title of “Teenage War Club.”
The ace up Morgan and Quinley’s sleeve is Jacob Mattison (Robert Merrifield), a local who left town years ago and achieved nominal success in the film business. Whether Jacob’s good fortune was based on an idea pilfered from Morgan is somewhat hazy, but in any event Jacob is back and the duo expect him to be a major part of their project. However, the film opens with Jacob in some state of dazed stupor of a narcotic or alcohol origin, and Morgan keeps him locked in a storage closet in Quinley’s basement with the vague hope that he will sober up in time for the party.
The party takes off rather quickly as a flow of people begin to crowd in. Some in attendance were invited to make the event seem very important, yet their behavior is at odds with their mission: two singers who spend more time conversing with the guests rather than serenading them, a pair of videographers focused on stating their thoughts than recording what others have to say, a reporter who never seems to get the right questions asked and soon fades into being an uneasy observer. Even those who are supposedly plugged-in to the entertainment world (some tweedy film professors, a professional wrestler who arrives carrying his oversized championship belt, two “martial arts choreographers” who stage an impromptu demo of their Jackie Chan skills, a pretentious-chic producer of local TV commercials) are clearly along for the free food and booze and have little to contribute to the party’s function. There is even an old-time friend of Morgan who gets wasted after his first beer and interrupts the party with loud shouts of inebriated babble.
Jacob eventually gets out of his storage closet prison and begins to stumble around the party. His interest in promoting Morgan and Quinley’s mission is clearly not present, and in his fried mindframe he expresses barely-disguised contempt for the arrival of his long-unseen father and sister. If anything, Jacob’s only pleasure comes from a few aspiring actresses who too eagerly greet the visiting demi-celebrity. Complicating matters further is Morgan’s girlfriend Melody (Rachel Langley), who is angrily hovering on the sidelines with her own issues.
During the course of the evening (the film was actually shot real-time over a three-hour stretch and edited down to around 100 minutes), the party becomes a claustrophobic torture chamber. Weird elliptical shots of conversation ricochet through the room–disjointed comments on child abuse, Clark Gable, infidelity, vague plans for acting careers, and other oddities pollute the sound waves. The rooms become tighter and tighter as more people arrive. Video loops of Jacob’s supposed film triumphs glow from TV monitors in a grainy blur, providing ghastly illumination to darkened spaces. Eventually the celebration becomes a nightmare of poor planning on every level, and the grand announcements for a new indie film capital in Rhode Island is lost amid crashing personalities and parallel agendas. Old wounds are made fresh (Jacob’s father reliving family squabbles) while new injuries are exposed (Morgan’s infidelity as Melody discovers she is pregnant). The party and its grand plans slowly bleeds to death, with no one bothering to tie a tourniquet around the fast-fading hopes.
Parties-gone-terribly-wrong have been the subject of several compelling films (“The Exterminating Angel,” “The Fireman’s Ball,” the adaptation of “Boys in the Band”) and “Getting Out of Rhode Island” is very much an equal to these titles. Throughout the film, de Rezendes uses P.O.V. cinematography to its fullest potential. As the camera bobs and weaves about the party, it frequently zooms too close to the guests or stays too far away at an asymmetrical angle. The audience literally becomes part of the happening, often with a sense of discomfort when wine-washed bleary faces or bile-drenched voices fill the screen. The scenes, edited with staccato timing, keep coming in an unforgiving stream of aural-visual assaults–like a series of endless slaps. The film is, admittedly, not the most pleasant experience and at times it feels like watching the proverbial train wreck. But damn, what a wreck! As “Getting Out of Rhode Island” winds its way to its final moments as the dejected Morgan kills ceiling balloons with a cake knife, the stab from the night’s debacle resonates with a harsh chill.
Clearly a high level of praise is deserving of de Rezendes for daring to create a feature that stakes out such emotional power. As the man who conceived the project and served as the producer, director, editor and chief cinematographer, this is very much his triumph. Praising individuals in the across-the-board-perfect ensemble might be unfair, as the film is wonderfully cast, though special mention could be directed at Robert Merrifield as the returning filmmaker (his pained visage as he tries to present a sober facade is extraordinary), Cathren Housley as a self-absorbed advertising agency executive (why she is wearing a derby and sunglasses indoors is a source of unexplained amusement), Ken Spassione as the party’s host (clearly out of his league on all levels, he keeps a tight silly grin despite the lack of mirth around him) and Matt West as the visiting wrestler (who clearly doesn’t belong and thus happily stands out as a good-natured interloper).
“Getting Out of Rhode Island” is so wonderfully different from the majority of films currently in release that some people may be confused on how it should be presented. With good fortune, film festival organizers and distributors will rise to the challenge that de Rezendes put forward here and share this film with as many people as possible. “Getting Out of Rhode Island” is something you don’t see everyday in contemporary filmmaking: a masterpiece.
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