SHOCKFEST Film Festival is coming up fast (11/7 at Cinespace in Hollywood), so though I'd planned on more general advice articles, I've decided instead to spend some time reviewing films for the upcoming fest. This first review is really a sneak preview of sorts. As of right now, the official selections list for SHOCKFEST 2009 has not been made public. So at the risk of letting the cat out of the bag, congratulations to "Liminal," an experimental, artistic short about two women locked in a vicious power struggle... in the nude.
In "Liminal," two women fight for control in their relationship, or is it a fight for control of a single person's consciousness? This sort of mind play common for the film's director, Stephen Keep Mills, who makes quality his calling card. Mills combines talented actors, vivid locations, enigmatic dialogue, and old-fashioned film to create pieces that truly embody the artistic identity of independent film. "Liminal" is no exception.
But all the trappings aside, the real question one has to ask about a film like "Liminal" is, the nudity... Does it work? Does it enhance the authenticity of the lead characters' argument (the two women are, after all, fighting over a sweater) or, as any decent filmmaker would have to ask him/herself when employing such an eye-catching device, does the nudity come across as pretentious? This is a common sin in indie film and can quickly alienate people.
The basic symbolism of employing naked characters is pretty obvious; they are stripped, literally, down to the raw emotion. They are vulnerable. Because of this alone, using nudity in films can be tempting. In "Liminal," the nudity also adds a sexual tension that heightens the sense of danger when the two women's confrontation starts getting violent. Finally, the two women seem more like a real intimate couple because they are naked together. The authenticity of their relationship is further strengthened by Mills's dialogue which, far from being on the nose as (another indie film sin) is often vague, giving the impression that the characters are building on the meanings that already exist in their relationship, adding to ongoing conversations.
This is a fine line to walk, however. There were points during the film that the illusion broke down. The intimacy of the nudity was at times actually undermined by what sometimes became stilted dialogue. When this happened, it seemed as though the actors were conscious of creating art rather than being in the moment. A few cuts, perhaps, could pick up the pace toward the middle of their argument and mitigate this.
Technically, the film was beautiful. Shot in 35mm, entirely in black and white, it was lovely to watch and highly entertaining. Unlike many big-budget indie films lately that play chameleon with big studio pics, I left "Liminal" feeling I'd seen something truly independent.
I won't, however, pretend I spent the whole film so thoroughly wrapped in the dialogue and plot that I forgot the two main characters were naked. We're all grown-ups, so we're told, and I think we'd all like to believe we could see beyond naked bodies to focus only on the deep meaning of the film. Alas (or perhaps, hurray), that is not the case. I spent more than a few minutes during this 14 minute short simply looking at the women, their shapes, sizes, movement, parts. It was novel, but afterword I wondered why it should be so. That, for me, was the greatest psychological aspect of "Liminal." The nudity was artistically handled, but it was still shocking. Small movements of the actors were amplified as nothing was left to the imagination. On one hand, am I still so juvenile, is our culture so prudish, that two women at home having a lovers' argument about wardrobe could boil down to, naked. On the other hand, realizing I wasn't completely desensitized was a good thing. "Liminal" shows us that we're not so analytical that we can't still be scandalized from time to time by something that does not set itself up merely for shock value. The difference here, I believe, was violation. "Liminal" does not seek to penetrate the audience; it merely invites them in for a look. In then end, perhaps nakedness, sex, and violence don't always have to be dirty.