Darker Shadows

The Screening Room surrenders to the dark vision of James Fotopoulos.

For the cinematically sophisticated and strong of heart, this weekend the Screening Room offers a chance to see the work of James Fotopoulos, an underground, Chicago-based filmmaker whose next-big-thing status is being written in the dark, moody images that populate his stagnant and disturbing films.

The series includes two shorts, The Sun and The Circle, which come off as film-school exercises and don't really hint at what Fotopoulos is capable of. It's in the features that we see his unique vision of what can be done with experimentation while remaining in the narrative form.

Back against the Wall opens the series, and it shows invention on almost every level, from narrative structure to acting style to framing, editing and sound design. The film essentially has three parts. The first focuses on Levey, a middle-aged genius and failure who lives in a one-room apartment with his girlfriend, a young stripper named June. In what is apparently a signature of Fotopoulos' style, the dialogue is delivered in short chunks with uncomfortable, two-second pauses between speakers.

It's an extremely eerie and original effect, and it melds seamlessly with everything else occurring on screen. The camera is largely still, and there are far fewer edits than American audiences are used to. The sustained, unmoving scenes cause the bare walls and few pieces of stark furnishings to take on a menacing, claustrophobic feel, as though they were characters in their own right.

The most striking thing about the film, though, is the sound design. The only thing that it seems reminiscent of is the sounds heard on the bridge of the Enterprise in the old Star Trek series. A constant, whirling hum, as though of machinery and electronic equipment, fills the background, punctuated only occasionally by very short bursts of heavy-metal music.

After the first third of the film, Levey vanishes and the story follows June as she goes off with her new boyfriend. The background sounds become more digital, and the heavy metal is replaced by disco (though again, only occasionally, and only for a few seconds at a time). Finally, the last segment of the film focuses on Levey's friend Ed, played by the gruesome Ernie E. Frantz.

Ed is all neck, a strangely shaped mass of human flesh who hires prostitutes and then dismisses them as he becomes ill. It's some horrifying stuff, shot again in close quarters with unmoving camera. Again, the sound shifts to become even more ominous, slower and deeper, mirroring the unpleasant character of Ed's diseased existence.

Migrating Forms works on similar principles. There's incessant noise, but in Forms the sound is simpler, a single tone buzzing away. The camera is even stiller, with fewer edits, featuring almost exclusively a single room, symmetrically arranged with a table and two chairs in the background and a bed in the foreground. A man and a woman meet there repeatedly, utter essentially the same dialogue, and then have sex on the bed. The woman removes her dress to reveal a massive growth on her back, but its existence is never mentioned, though it seems to have bizarre effects, bringing about insect infestations and leaving strange pupae behind.

The bizarre story is only one aspect of Fotopoulos' striking originality. It's especially notable in the acting technique he enforces upon his players, each of whom speaks and moves in his or her own bizarre, unnatural style. Perhaps what's truly odd about this approach is that it comes off as more human than a lot of "realistic" acting. It's as though David Lynch's early work was somehow wedded to the emotional sensibility of John Cassavetes.

Whatever his influences, Fotopoulos' films defy description because they're such cohesive products. Minimally conceived, each element seems to be part of one mood. There's no wasted dialogue, no wasted movement by the actors, no meaningless items lying about on the set, not a sound that isn't intentional and thematically consistent.

The more recent of the two films, Back against The Wall, is also the more complicated, and is easier to watch than the more stark and disturbing Migrating Forms. It's also more mature in its understanding of human relationships, which is a good sign for Fotopoulos' future growth as a filmmaker. While difficult, both films are rewarding, and shouldn't be missed by those intrigued by what can be done with the cinematic form.

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