I have a soft spot for Steve Balderson. He’s an extremely smart and clever guy working outside the system, and he makes movies that are so gorgeous that it’s not unreasonable to say that, cinematographically at least; he’s the equal of an Argento or Kubrick in their prime. Some people have perfect vocal pitch, Steve has perfect visual composition. Even simple stuff like a group of diners sitting at a restaurant table or a car driving down a dusty cornfield road always look their best in Balderson’s films, and that’s why I admire him. It’s fairly easy to make something like the Sistine chapel look good, but one hell of an accomplishment to get relatively ordinary surroundings to shine.
His first film, “Pep Squad”, is so utterly beautiful to look at that it completely transcends its high school horror b-movie aspirations to become pure stunning art. His second film, Firecracker, succeeds even moreso because the screenplay is the equal to the visuals, making it both extremely pretty and extremely smart.
“Watch Out” is based on the novel by Dr. Joseph Suglia and follows serial Narcissist John Barrows, a man so into himself that his preferred sex aid is a mirror, as he attempts to get a teaching job in Benton Harbor, Michigan. Barrows is also a cruel misanthrope and spends most of the film’s running length verbally abusing other people who are attracted to him because of his self-love, thinking his passion is directed towards them. These encounters contain some honestly great dark comic moments, and Balderson again shows us that he has a great eye for visuals and in getting either non- or semi-professional actors to give good performances.
However, there are a few problems. Barrows’ narration is a bit too bookish for a movie, the tone a pubic hair too off kilter and goofy, and the film feels as if Balderson stretched out some scenes because of budget and time restrictions. Then there’s the problem of the subject matter dealing with narcissism. It’s bound to grate on some people’s nerves because deep down inside we’re all somewhat narcissistic. After all, we star in our very own first person interactive movie every day. So we tend to see things only in relationship to ourselves and watching someone boast of their superiority, as Barrows does throughout the film, tend to drive us nuts. It reflects our own innermost secret thoughts and outs us as hypocrites.
“Watch Out” is like a Picasso doodle hung askew on the wall. It’s always interesting and you admire it for what it is, yet you know the artist is capable of doing better and you want more. Balderson’s wowed me before, he will wow me again, but “Watch Out” doesn’t quite wow me. I like many individual elements on display here, the aforementioned cinematography, the quirky dialogue, the rather brave performance by Matt Riddlehoover as John Barrows and Balderson’s always sure hand behind the camera, but somehow none of it gels to become a well rounded film. “Watch Out” feels incomplete somehow, as if it’s looking for its voice. It’s like listening to a band onstage jam to a new song they’re writing live without them ever actually going full bore and playing it. They pluck notes, ad-lib some lyrics and it’s f*****g cool to watch but there’s something missing.
That said, there are moments of great inspiration and imagination, like a scene with a priest at confession that made me laugh so hard that I blew soda out my nose. Not to mention that Barrows makes for a surprisingly sympathetic character once you understand that his narcissism is not so much fueled by self love but by rugged individualism gone awry. He’s disgusted by how ordinary and mundane most people are and how even the superfamous are merely banal mirrors of those people. He may not deal with it in the healthiest way, but the man’s got a point.
This is a film that is a lot more fun to watch than I probably make it sound, and definitely a joy to analyze afterwards with spirited conversation. It never feels like the construct of a committee, but the organic creation of one man’s vision.