Henry Barrial's Some Body

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I'm rooting for digital video. I'd like it to be respected and accepted. I'd like to see it develop a fresh esthetic and prove, definitively, that it can revolutionize cinema in ways that go beyond cheapness and speed. Unfortunately, movies like the new psychosexual drama Some Body aren't going to make that happen; movies like Some Body serve only to confirm naysayers' worst suspicions about digital video?that it's an invitation to pretentious amateurism, offering moviemaking opportunities to people who probably shouldn't be making movies.

Any professional actor who's also a committed, conscientious filmmaker should be even more appalled. Star Stephanie Bennett, who plays the self-destructive, bed-hopping teacher, produced Some Body, cowrote the script and cast many of her real-life ex-lovers (the bulk of whom, according to press notes, are actors, too) as the character's bedmates, but here, as in Paul Thomas Anderson's films, there's not much acting that could be called graceful or precise. What's onscreen plays more like a succession of wannabe-Oscar clips?attractive young men and women brooding, drinking, screwing and having breakdowns. We get to see the heroine weeping in the shower, suggestively sucking on a beer bottle in a tight closeup and urinating twice. If exhibitionism were artistry, this film would win every award in sight.

An object of controversy at the 2001 Sundance film festival, Some Body tells the grim story of Samantha (Bennett), a Los Angeles schoolteacher who bounces from lover to lover while trying to find herself. Well, that's not exactly accurate; it's more like Samantha's running from herself?from the reality of her empty life.

Director-cowriter Henry Barrial starts the picture with a betrayal: Samantha, who's in a committed relationship with her patient and supportive boyfriend, Anthony (Jeramy Guillory), flirts with another man at a party. Anthony calls her on it, and for some inexplicable reason this confrontation destroys their relationship; Samantha announces that she's had enough, that their life together has become too boring and comfortable, and she's moving out?even though that means enduring financial and logistical hardships. She moves into a new place, promptly sleeps with a cute guy in her building (Billy Ray Gallion), goes home to Texas to visit her parents, leaves a string of apologetic, increasingly pathetic messages on Anthony's answering machine, comes back to Los Angeles and goes even deeper into despair. Essentially, Samantha spends the whole film in retreat/regroup mode, but she seems impervious to self-knowledge.

I know plenty of people who fit that description in real life, but I don't have the patience to watch full-length films about them. Samantha herself is just about the highest-maintenance heroine I've seen in a recent motion picture. She's constantly wheedling, whining and complaining. She manipulates everybody?for sex, affection, sustenance, even a place to stay?"Guys are suckers, man, if you work it right," a friend declares?and she appears to give almost nothing in return, perhaps because she's not wired for generosity. Warren Beatty's character in Shampoo was just as self-interested, intensely sexual and emotionally closed off, but at least he was sweet and charming, and he occasionally took baby steps toward real decency. You could understand why women loved him and men wanted to be his friend, and it wasn't just because he was a man and promiscuous men are more likely to be forgiven than promiscuous women. If Samantha wasn't the emotional equivalent of an open sore?if you couldn't see her manipulations and self-delusions coming from 10 miles away?Some Body wouldn't be such a pain to sit through.

What drives this attractive, self-destructive young woman? She doesn't seem to be a failure in life; in the classroom scenes, she looks like she might be a pretty good teacher. She drinks too much, but it's hard to be sure; any movie with lots of parties and seductions is going to show a lot of people drinking. She's sexy and fun?a party girl?and she uses her body to get what she wants, which is an escape from loneliness. She's desperately unhappy for reasons the movie refuses to fully explain. In the abstract, that's a good thing; movies that relentlessly explain themselves to the audience tend to be boring.

But the film still seems to be missing substantial pieces of information?pieces that aren't supplied by the semi-improvisational dialogue and sex scenes, which are more about showcasing the naturalistic freedom of the cast than in getting useful information across. There's not enough information in Some Body to even formulate one's own opinion about what drives Samantha or whether it's worth it to watch her spiraling down into the pit of unhappiness. ("I'm not sure what I'm doing and I'm not sure what I want," Samantha says; the comment sounds less like an existential confession than an excuse for not doing more rewrites on the script.) The actors are acting with nothing, and the tale of a promiscuous, self-destructive single woman is a pretty slim reed on which to hang a feature. (The only interesting performance comes from Tom Vitorino, who plays Tony T, a genial East Coast macho man who talks about himself in the third person and refuses to go quietly when Samantha tells him to get lost. Where nearly all of the other characters are instantly recognizable as stereotypes being played by actors, Tony T actually seems to exist; when he leaves a scene, you can visualize where he's going and what sort of mischief he might get into.)

Come to think of it, the narrative of Looking for Mr. Goodbar, which Some Body resembles, was a pretty slim reed, too. The novel and film versions of Goodbar were more interesting for their timing and social context than for their alleged artistic value?the story's frank treatment of carnality was cloaked in a deeply conservative, sex-loving-single-gals-got-got-it-coming message. In the end, Goodbar revealed itself as a crude, schematic, woefully limited story; it was as if the heroine were tempting God's wrath by breaking so many of his commandments, and was bound to be punished eventually?as retro a message, in its own swingin' way, as that of The Exorcist.

In 2002, the message seems even more retro, and the absence of serious religious feeling makes it even worse. (Barrial and Bennett are probably sick of having Some Body compared to Goodbar, whose main character was also a teacher, but if they didn't want the comparison, they should have changed Samantha's profession?and saying, "Well, there are people just like Samantha in real life," is no defense. The mere fact that one's own life superficially resembles Looking for Mr. Goodbar does not justify retelling the story.)

On celluloid, Some Body would still be a bad movie. The fact that it was shot on digital video and is being presented as an exemplar of the new medium's possibilities makes its incompetence all the more grating. Cinematographer Geoffrey Pepos, who also coproduced, edited and composed the moody, synthesized score, embraces all the worst cliches of cinema verite, whipping the camera around like he's covering a tennis match. The compositions are artless, the lighting ranges from competent to nonexistent. The whole movie looks grainy, washed out, like something out of an amateur's home video. I don't care if it looks that way on purpose; there's still no excuse for it. All in all, it's a huge step down from the silvery richness of The Anniversary Party and the velvety widescreen splendor of Jackpot, two digital movies that seriously tried to expand the reach of a still-developing technology. Some Body was made by creative people, but the result isn't art; it feels more like opportunism, or self-expression for self-expression's sake?a tale signifying nothing, populated by the sorts of people one leaves Los Angeles to escape.

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