Indie – Time of the Master
When a movie goes out the boundaries of genres it gets casted out. One can say it is then “independent”. So is Suspension, a fable about excess of power, half-fantasy, half-drama and half-something else. The movie remains misknown because it lacks stars and promotion.
The pitch recalls a famous Twilight Zone episode (A Kind of Stopwatch) : an average joe finds himself with the power to stop time with an obsolete object, a VHS camcorder. But it is no comedy and there is no Rod Serling speech at the end of Suspension. Because Daniel (Scott Cordes) “gains” this special ability in a car accident by loosing wife and son. As he can freeze the whole universe, Daniel is going to try to repair his life and Sarah’s (Annie Tedesco), the woman who took everything from him and who is wrecked by guilt and loss too. Unhappiness is as simple as making a phonecall from your car. By trying to do good, Daniel is going to freeze her too. Until he turns her into a doll, a statue he falls in love with. So the dazed nice guy morphs into a dangerous – but sweet and careful – psycho.
« Once someone gains enough power to view someone else as an object, abuse is a nearly inevitable side effect » says Aris Belvin, author and producer. Barely 26 by the time they did it, the trio who wrote, produced and directed Suspension surprises us with its maturity and its deep cinematographic and philosophical arguments. As we perform the interview, the DSK scandal in New York makes a global buzz, the summer blockbuster of 2011 that was not yet a clinical case nor an Abel Ferrara movie in the making, but a disgusting abuse of power. Hermetically sealed off our provocations, the team answers that they have been working all along and then could not spare time for DSK. But they share the idea that in the DSK story, there is something of « a man loosing contact with reality ». The comparison can be made between Daniel, their anti-hero, who masters time, and Dominique, ex-hero of France, who mastered money as President of International Monetary Fund. But we can stop here. Because Suspension is also about a certain kind of love, a jealous and possessive love. In a way, and in spite of himself, the male character realises its true project : to destroy the object-woman that destroyed his life. To possess till destruction : indeed, a certain kind of love, which is very common in any side of the atlantic ocean, and any place in the world.
Price of independence
Suspension is surprisingly fine. But it is also surprisingly misknown because it lacked distribution. The internet where we found it a few years ago should have been a (legal) solution. « No movie stars or marketing budget » explains the producer. But what makes Suspension hard to sell even in the United States, is the melange of genres. « Too much drama for the sci-fi fan, and too sci-fi for the drama fan ». Without speaking of the horror side of the story. So it fails to find its audience. Suspension has been seen only once in France, during the late Film Festival of Avignon in 2008. Maybe you seen it on a russian tv network, or during a vacation in the United States, or in a canadian festival ? Despite its qualities, the movie knows the usual fate of most small budget independant movies. If the french audience manages to get the film the usual dvd drives won’t work, because of the politic of zones settled by the same industry that fights piracy and teaches us lessons. There is an extreme solution to the problem, and this solution leads to another problem because it is forbidden by law. Director Ethan Shaftel : « it’s available illegally from pirate sites for download, which has been a popular option for all the countries where it is not yet available legally. At this point I hope that people find the movie in whatever way they can! ». It is the other price of independence and according to the point of view, it is a recognition.
Suspension, by Ethan Shaftel, Alec Joler and Aris Blevins, with Scott Cordes, Annie Tedesco. USA, 2008.
INTERVIEW :THE ABUSE OF ABUSE OF POWER
Behind Suspension, a misknown outsider of the chef-d’oeuvre category, there are three youngsters, aged 26 then in 2008. Ethan Shaftel was co-director, story-writer, executive producer. Alec Joler was co-director and co-cinematographer. Aris Belvin was producer and script-writer. We just asked them to understand the core of their movie and what lies beyond. They answered, in extenso.
Motionmedia.fr : I read in the progression of Scott Cordes’ character a classical case of harrasement that starts with a kind of true love feeling, frustration, and continues with a « rape » of Sarah’s intimacy and then violence, and then back to true love (or empathy). So, was the harrassment theme in your mind when you planned to do this movie ?
Ethan Shaftel : I would expand the word « rape » slightly to something more general: « control. » I would say that the idea of control is certainly a central idea in Suspension. We were especially interested in the illusion of control, what we do as humans to delude ourselves into feeling like we have control over our own lives or even other people. We meet Daniel, Scott Cordes character in the midst of a destructive car crash, over which he has no control. The process of his exploration of the video tapes presents a paradox: he has, through the buttons on the camera, supreme control over the images on the tape, the memories, by playing, rewinding, pausing, repeating. Yet this control is is confined to the past. So Suspension really begins with asking the question: what if this man, who has completely lost control of the events and circumstances of his life, suddenly finds he has a truly supreme level of control over the universe? We decided that it would be more interested to have this power limited in some sense, we didn’t make Daniel become Superman, we confined his newfound absolute control to time. So I think your question about rape or harassment is the natural next step in this progression. Daniel, who is now in complete control of his personal existence, has moved his attentions to to someone else, Sarah. The idea we were playing with here is also related to the concept of « responsibility » over someone else. Daniel feels responsible for Sarah, and thus that he is now permitted, or even obligated, to take some measure of control over her life from her, « for her own good. » And that of course is a very dangerous thought, since where does it end? The element that interested me is that even though he has complete control over her body as one would have over a doll — he can literally pose her into a semblance of an embrace, he can put her into bed with him — his control is still only an delusion. This climax was in our minds for the very beginning of creating this movie. Do you know the children’s book « Harold and the Purple Crayon? If you do and you are interested, I could explain some of the themes, compositions, motifs, that we took from this book (which I always found to be very dark even though it was a children’s book) having to do, in my opinion, with control, obsession, and delusion.
Alec Joler : Though rape is hinted at, dealing with loss and the abuse of power are the two main themes of the film. Creating the film, we never viewed Daniel as a vicious rapist. We viewed him as a family man stripped of everything that mattered to him, who turns to Sarah as a way to replace his loss and focus his energies. With his new power, there is not the normal set of limitations and consequences, and so he eventually abuses it, and twists his mind into viewing these actions (stalking, etc.) as a way to help Sarah, as opposed to the reality, which is what we show from her viewpoint. Her story is similar: the loss of her husband, and trying to regain control over her life as outside forces (the car crash, Daniel) try to take it away. It can be argued that rape is simply a form of power and control. Taken from that viewpoint, I would say it is a main subject for our movie.
FATHER KNOWS BEST
Aris Belvin : We certainly didn’t intend for rape to be the main subject. I approached the film as a story of loss, and how people deal with loss. Scott takes the loss of his family as a direct result of his inability to control. As a result he manifests the ability to control everything — to stop the world and manipulate it as he sees fit. In gaining this ultimate power, Scott loses touch with his humanity — trying to control not only his own reality but that of Sarah, who he latches on to because he sees her as an individual who is suffering along with him. There is certainly a psychological and spiritual rape happening throughout the film as Scott intrudes further and further into her life. We considered not having any actual physical defilement in the film, then went to a more graphic scene with Sarah and Scott. We eventually settled on what is in the film now, which is more in the mind of the viewer than on screen. Rape is such a terrible act and one that is pervasive in film, so we struggled with ways to avoid an outright rape in the film. I feel that once someone gains enough power to view someone else as an object, abuse is a nearly inevitable side effect. Suspension is about power that divorces its owner from humanity and the terrible consequences that arise from the abuse of power. The specific theme of harassment was not something we set out to portray — as I was writing the script we tried to tell a story that was true for the characters we had created. Scott is every bit a father and has a paternalistic view of the world around him. When he realizes that Sarah is suffering — not only because of a similar loss, but from the exact same accident — he feels that he must help her to exert some control over his world. From there the boundary between helping her and controlling her becomes more and more blurred. His actions are always seen through a veil of ‘father knows best.’
Why did you do it in fantasy/sci-fi style ?
E.S. : there was never a conscious decision in our team about the genre, we never had a discussion that ended with « let’s make a science fiction movie. » The original concepts of the movie were from a few short stories I had written years earlier, and then adapted into a short screenplay. The Suspension screenplay grew from that much later. The subject matter, a camera that stopped time, always seemed to be more fantastical or magical, and I didn’t really consider it science fiction until later, when we were editing the movie. If we had given Daniel a magic wand to stop time then the movie would have had a very different tone. Then it ended up having instead a piece of technology, the video camera. But even so, I specifically sought out an old, analog camera that had the sort of degraded quality to the images, the rough analog static, that I have always found magical.
A.J. : Genre (sci-fi, horror, etc.) is a way to externalize that which is internal. His power to stop time symbolizes his inability to change the past and move onto the future, and her inability/attempt to regain control of her life. Using genre not only creates excitement, but also frees an independent movie from the trappings of the « boring character-piece indie » syndrome.
A.B. : I always think of science fiction as the genre of the idea. Ethan had been interested in the idea of being able to stop time for years and had a few different pieces written exploring the concept — he approached me with some of those pieces and I came up with the story that is Suspension.
Have you been inspired by A Kind Of Stopwatch, an episode of Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone de Rod Serling ?
E.S. : I have actually never seen « A kind of of Stopwatch. » Probably the work that caused me to start thinking about the power to stop time was « The Fermata » by Nicholson Baker (a novel). There are also many stories and legends from antiquity about statues and people falling in love with statues, such as Pygmalion, that were an inspiration.
Pourquoi votre film n’a pas atteint une audience plus large ?
E.S. : I think there are several reasons that Suspension failed to connect with a wide audience. The first reason is that it is a challenge for ANY low budget independent film to get seen. There are so many movies out there, and the very rare indie movie gets championed by an important critic or festival and through their endorsements manages to connect with the right audience. There is so much luck involved in that process, not matter how brilliant the movie is; and I’ve seen MANY movies at festivals that deserve to be much more successful then they are. Also, Suspension doesn’t have any big name actors, who bring their own set of fans that are willing to try out an odd film because a particular actor is in it. Finally, Suspension is an odd mix of genres. I don’t think it really fulfills the expectations of a science fiction fan who has discovered it because it is a movie about a guy who stops time. The biggest negative comment I get about it is that the pace is so slow, much more like a drama than a science fiction film. And on the other hand, if you are the type of viewer who likes slow paced, melodramatic character studies, then you might very well be turned off by the whole « magical » element of the camera and the time stopping. So it’s a tough sell.
A.J. : No movie stars or marketing budget.
A.B. : I think there are a number of possible reasons that our film did not get a broader release. The two that we’ve heard from people on the distribution side of the industry are: a lack of name talent and not being genre specific enough. Our film has some amazing actors in it, but no one who has a name that would draw an audience into a theater — having a person with a famous name, even in a small role, is a massive benefit for getting distributed. In terms of the genre concern, we made a film that is science fiction, but very lightly. There are no robots, scientists, wormholes or aliens. It is a very subtle, domestic story with a magical/sci-fi frame. There are elements of horror but we didn’t go far enough in that direction either. This made it difficult for genre cable stations and distributors to get behind releasing the film — too hard to explain to the audience.
Did you screen your film in France ? How did the audience reacted ?
E.S. : We screened at the Avignon Film Festival in 2008. The reaction was mixed, the audience was certainly congratulatory in their remarks, and a few of the other filmmakers had some interesting insights into the movie. But my experience of the event was marred by a strange incident: a woman in the audience left the screening in tears, extremely upset by the movie. I didn’t know what happened until later, but after the screening she confronted my girlfriend who was attending the festival with me, and demanded to know « what type of person would make a movie like this. » Apparently she had had some experiences with a stalker in the past, and felt that the movie itself was some sort of malicious or aggressive act towards the audience, designed to upset and hurt people. Clearly that was a unique reaction, and an extraordinary one, but after my girlfriend told me what had occurred it really did upset me. This was also at a point during the entire experience of selling the movie and taking it to festivals where my spirits were at their lowest. It was sort of a « postpartum » depression, after spending so long dedicated to a project, and then having to let go and exist as something separate from myself.
Is there any other solution for french viewers to see Suspension without downloading it illegaly as the zone 1 dvs are unreadable here ?
E.S. : I’m not sure what the best way to see Suspension in France at this point. Other than from our site, Amazon, Barnes & Nobles, or Neflix, it’s available illegally from pirate sites for download, which has been a popular option for all the countries where it is not yet available legally. At this point I hope that people find the movie in whatever way they can!
A.B. : It is surprisingly difficult to see independent works outside of their country of origin — despite the technological leaps and bounds that the internet has allowed. The best way to see the film is to buy the DVD off of our site. In North America it can be seen via Netflix streaming service — but I do not believe that extends to France at this time.
I don’t think harassment and sexism will change until a truly equal society exists
Sexism, harassement, stalking, are becoming major issuew in France since the DSK case disclosure. Would you mind to express your opinion about what is happening currently in New York and Paris? (the original interview has been conducted in summer 2011) ?
E.S. : I must admit that I have been writing all month and have been purposefully isolating myself from the news. However, I am aware of what the allegations were. My general feeling is we still have a long way to go for true equality for women. Attacking the culture of permissiveness towards famous men that exists on both sides of the Atlantic is a good place to start in tackling general misogyny everywhere.
A.J. : I’m not deeply versed in the case or DSK’s history with these issues. In my limited understanding this seems to be another case of the powerful having grown too out of touch with reality. DSK seems to have a history of over-reaching his boundaries and expecting to be able to control and relate to women as he sees fit, with no consequences. I’m sure this will bring the abuse of power in the world to the forefront for the short term, but I don’t think harassment and sexism will change until a truly equal society exists. I don’t know if that will ever happen.
Illustration by Philippe Caza © . Thanks to Maël Nonnet
Video bonus : A Kind Of Stopwatch by John Rich and Rod Serling (1963), followed by A Little Peace And Quiet by Wes Craven and James Crocker (1985), both from The Twilight Zone.
A Little Peace And Quiet