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By David Finkelstein | September 20, 2004

This DVD collection features the early short, experimental film and video works of Morlando Productions, with a special focus on examining aspects of violence and pathology within a Surrealist-inspired framework.

“Mange! Mange!” (2003) features a fat young man in a Beanie Copter hat (Jeff Reniers), who is clearly a cinematic cousin of The Egg Lady from “Pink Flamingos.” He is being forced by his mom to eat an enormous tray of disgusting but hard-to-identify food. The mother is a mysteriously black-hooded figure (Laura Matts). The black and white film uses intertitles in the manner of early silent films, and has a score which sounds like twisted and menacing carnival music. The film is a darkly comic and grotesque celebration of the weirdness of the body’s processing of food.

In “Filthy” (1996) two teenage girls in school uniforms who are covered with filth fight with each other, while having a philosophical argument on the nature of beauty, filth, weakness, and power. An androgynous figure enters and the two girls unite to kill her by throwing a box at her. The combination of camp nonacting, punk aggression and philosophical chitchat reminded me of the works of Mike and George Kuchar. Chris Barry, the writer and director, sent me some notes underplaying the value of this video (“never publically screened, and for good reason”), presumably because he made it in high school when he was sixteen, but it was my favorite piece in the collection. The fresh comic energy of the performers, the anarchistic/punk spirit, the casually philosophical dialogue, as well as the ingenious mise-en-scene in a school basement (an ingeniousness undoubtedly forced into being by lack of financial resources) combine to make this short piece truly original, striking, entertaining, and enlightening.

“Acid Police 1” is an short black and white film featuring James Reid as a tough guy in shades, driving around an urban nightscape. Subtitles reveal his inner monologue of conflict in highly nonspecific terms (“I shouldn’t have gotten involved…”) Shaky camerawork and trailing neon lights, along with a discordant and distorted electronic score suggest a bad acid trip. The film seems to be mainly a style exercise.

“Morlando 4: The Art of Communication” (2004) presents letterboxed imagery of pylons with wires strung between them. A female narrator (Sally Eldrina) presents a philosophical discourse on the relationship of language to images, telling us to ignore what she is saying and only believe what we see on the screen. As her discourse continues, she uses two anecdotes as examples. In the first example, a woman is breaking up with her boyfriend, and their failure to communicate is due to her inability to define her terms. In the second, a madman is unable to communicate with a nurse assigned to care for him. We see moments from these anecdotes on the screen, acted in a melodramatic manner. The narrator’s voice is continually obscured by different kinds of electronic noise, as if to underscore the unreliable nature of language. The images are similarly fragmented. The final image is of a woman smiling, which the narrator suggests may be the simplest and most reliable way to communicate.

This well-produced short film is a witty and antic philosophical comedy, in which ideas from structuralist and post-structuralist theory are used as a jumping-off point to create intellectual mayhem and merriment, as well as producing a vivid sense of the strangeness of verbal/visual communication.

“I Should Have Known You Were the Devil” is one of the longer shorts in the collection, and also the most conventional. In standard narrative film language it tells the story of a demonic young female secretary who deviously plots the downfall and death of her boss, just for kicks. Since this is a genre of film with which I am largely unfamiliar, I am unsure if the film is intended as a satire or a serious example. The film is competently shot and edited, but I found the story neither interesting, titillating, believable, nor entertaining, leaving me wondering why this film was made.

“Acid Police 2: The Reconciliation” is a continuation of the preoccupations of “Acid Police 1.” The protagonist (Chris Barry this time) is seen driving from Canada into the US, in a hotel room, and on a plane. The color footage is always in shaky motion and dwells in ponderous close-ups (on the man’s thumb, the safety instruction card on the plane, etc.) in a way which suggests an acid trip. Again we read the man’s elliptical thoughts in the subtitles. The film blends the textures of “international intrigue” with altered states, without resorting to a literal narrative.

The score for “Blue Box” is techno music with an exciting, syncopated beat to it. The image consists simply of a blue rectangle which constantly jumps to different sizes and dimensions, in a rhythm which is directly related to the music, but not simplistically so. The background is black. The blue texture within the box varies subtly. The aesthetic parameters of this ambient work are kept simple, and the musical and visual qualities are engaging and well executed, making this surprisingly compelling piece one of the strongest in the collection.

“The Sun” shows black and white footage of the sun, seen through branches. Mostly we see lens flares. The soundtrack, backed by soft guitar music, features the voices a variety of people who have been asked to say something about the sun.

One my pet peeves is works in which a group of people are asked to muse on a particular concept or image. When people are asked to make associations around a particular idea, you tend to lose the amazing power and freedom which is achieved by unconstrained human consciousness. At the same time, I usually am not convinced that the observations thus obtained are mutually illuminating or actually belong together. Their observations are almost always superficial, offhanded, and lacking in profound insight. This film is no exception.

“Alone But Not Lonely” is easily the most shocking and controversial film in the collection. This hyperrealistic film is a graphic simulation of a “snuff” film. Three young men lure a third guy into their garage, where they sadistically torture and then murder him. It is part of the story that one of the three guys is videotaping everything, adding to the harrowing believability of the film. It was so disturbing to watch that I was almost unable to get through it.

When I first watched this film, I was at a loss to explain what the filmmakers were up to. I have no taste or tolerance for violence in films, and I am totally unfamiliar with the horror and extreme violence genres. Since I find all such scenes in films to be catering to an incomprehensible appetite on the part of certain filmgoers, I assumed that this horrifying film was made simply because the filmmakers got off on it.

The director, Chris Barry, wrote to me and explained that his intentions were quite different. The filmmakers were all devotees of extremely violent films, and made the film to be shown at festivals in Vancouver and Toronto which cater to these same tastes. The idea was that by removing the comforting distancing devices of sexual fantasy and presenting sadistic violence in it’s rawest, clearest form, to get audiences who are already addicted to film violence to become more conscious of the horrifying nature of what they are addicted to. Despite their claims, it is clear that the filmmakers are in fact turned on by the violence in this film. In fact, their very pleasure is probably what makes the film successful. According to Barry, audiences at the festivals were stunned into silence by the conscious realization that they are addicted to images of the most brutal human cruelty imaginable. Barry, having made this particular experiment, says he doesn’t feel the need to make more films of this type in the future.

“Panic Year” shows black and white footage of a pretty woman alone on the beach. The shots are occasionally cut back and forth in a frantic rhythm, but are more often calm and meditative. The soundtrack, by contrast, contains a narration from “Journey to the Bottom of the Sea” in which a radio announcer describes some kind of worldwide disaster and the panic which ensues. Connecting the image with the soundtrack, one might think of the panic which would make one want to run down to the beach and flee the country, or perhaps the woman is the sole survivor of a nuclear holocaust. (Think “On the Beach.”) The film is quietly, elliptically resonant with the mood of rising hysteria which has been orchestrated by the Bush administration as a politically useful response to the 9/11 attacks.

“Young and Dangerous” is a bit uneven, but it shows throughout the work of adventurous, daring, resourceful artists who are unafraid to explore the most challenging subjects, and who have the vision to create new forms to express their findings, making the collection a rewarding experience.

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