Loren Cass, the Best New Film Not Reviewed by The L in 2009 (Sorry!)

01/14/2010 2:53 PM |

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Chris Fuller’s debut film Loren Cass, shot when the director was 21, was released last year to quiet acclaim; the film is now available on DVD from Kino.

The circa ’97 St. Petersburg of Loren Cass, a classy low-budget indie about Floridian disaffection, is somnolent and sickly and sad: while sleepy jazz seeps from car stereos, and blacktops are so devoid of cars you can lie right down on them, the gas stations and city buses are bathed in an emetic green glow, the diners awash in blue shadows like the cover of a Sinatra record. By day, it’s a sunny American town; by night, it’s on the verge of dissolution and disintegration: the high school hallways are eerily empty, the traffic signs corroded-even the graffiti is fading. The streets, meanwhile, pulsate with violence.

Set in the aftermath of the 1996 riots sparked off by a police shooting, Loren Cass features spurts of abrupt, seemingly unprovoked, racially motivated melees that recede just as quickly as they erupted. The fists flail between angsty young men; the adults are absent: either asleep in front of a staticky television, sitting stock still in their easy chairs, or sneaking swigs from a desk drawer bottle. (The film’s only young woman is too busy waiting tables and bedding men of all colors to get involved.) Fuller’s focus is on white boys: without much of a plot, they meet up, get drunk, and have sex (with white girls). Cinematographer William Garcia, shooting on 16mm to maximum effect, captures the characters’ worlds in detailed tableaux, adroitly framed and lighted: we learn more about that promiscuous waitress (Kayla Tabish), for example, through the soft pink glow of her bedroom and the angles formed by its walls than through anything she says—which is very little, anyway.

Loren Cass is suspicious of language, or at least of dialogue: a place is defined by its look and the movements of its inhabitants, not by the things those residents say about it; as such, there’s an absence of phony speeches or contrivances (though the film occasionally slips into the washed-out clichés of desperation). In one scene, a dinner date is spent in silence, the awkwardness broken only by a note scribbled onto a napkin. Speech is not entirely absent from the film, but Fuller saves the bulk of it for voice-overs from external sources, highlighting the need for a detached or big-picture view—as opposed to a rat’s eye one—to say anything meaningful: Bukowski, on a recoding, jokes nasally; an unseen character recounts wild, profanity-laced stories; and a black preacher sermonizes about riots and police violence.

The naturalistic, languid silences that fill the spaces between these monologues and the dreamlike beatdowns are the movie’s strong point, distinguishing it from its icky indie brethren (the Sundancers). But they’re also its downfall: the obtuseness overwhelms, the moroseness smothers. Loren Cass is a brilliant evocation of a specific time and place, but it has a wavering sense of actual people. The city is the movie’s main character. The kids are just its props.