Horror, Violence, Sociopathic Loners: The Films of James Fotopoulos Play Downtown

Feb 16 2015 | 05:03 AM

    The films of James Fotopoulos examine heady esthetic and existential concerns through a unique hybrid of contemplative, delicate avant-garde formal effects and brutal low-budget body-horror, set within meticulously plotted structures that eschew typical experimental serendipity in favor of calculated auteurist rigor. At age 24, he's completed 12 shorts and two features that play like the unlikely progeny of Stan Brakhage and Richard Kern, set in dingy urban environments that would make Ed Ulmer proud. Obsessed with the philosophical problems regarding sex, violence, extreme psychic states and unnerving atmospheres, as well as the classic formal issues of 16 mm lensing, Fotopoulos' films wed a youthful fixation with the overpowering nature of primal drives to an uncommonly mature certitude of vision and technique.

    Few people have had the chance to see Fotopoulos' works. He's only screened them in public fairly recently, and then only at a handful of festivals. Next week, however, the Chicago director will be in town to screen his two features, Zero (1997) and Migrating Forms (1999), plus eight of his most recent shorts.

    Fotopoulos grew up in Norridge, IL. His background was solidly working-class. His father was a policeman and his mother a hairdresser, and Fotopoulos himself currently works in a warehouse. He also happened to grow up just a few houses away from the razed former residence of John Wayne Gacy. "I don't like to say that too often," Fotopoulos remarked recently. "I know that people will say 'Oh, that's why.' But when you've always known this empty lot, and what went on there, it can't help but make you think."

    He displayed an early aptitude for drawing as a kid, but became fully devoted to filmmaking by 15. After doing a series of 16 mm shorts, he started shooting his first feature, Zero, at 18, in his first year of film classes at Columbia College in Chicago.

    Hardly the typical film school fare, Zero is a 142-minute study of the inner and outer life of a young, sociopathic loner, less a narrative than a temporal portrait. The unnamed protagonist, a gangly lad in shabby, hickish garb, meanders through gentle wilderness, covers the walls of his bunker-like home with pornography and anatomical diagrams, dissects a cow's head, masturbates violently to magazines and curses loudly to himself about Jews, blacks and women. Especially about women: the man endlessly laments his loneliness and lack of love. In a distinctly Dahmeresque move, he finds sexual satisfaction with a female mannequin, whom he begins treating passionately as his inanimate inamorata. All this time, a cancerous cyst grows on the man's arm, increasing in size as his mental state further deteriorates.

    The character's life is both a grungily realistic depiction of the now-familiar psychological extremities of serial killer types, as well as a harsh metaphor for all heterosexual male desire, pathetic and pathologized. "I think Colin Wilson wrote something like, 'Everything that Ted Bundy did, men do,'" Fotopoulos says, quoting Wilson's History of Murder. "A lot of these people, they're sexually obsessed, but not too different than most teenage boys. They just go further."

    The film is structured as a series of compulsively repetitive narrative slabs, interspersed with increasingly baroque experimental sequences that exteriorize the man's hyper-masculine desires and mutated mentations. These range from relatively straightforward shots of meatlike, naked bodies to hand-painted, optically printed firestorms to ominous organic sculptures. Color plays a key emotional role, as it does in some of his more recent short films. The tinted monochrome stock shifts from sepia to orange to purple over the two-plus-hour run, broken up by bursts of thick painted-on color in some dream sequences. The sound design is equally concrete and expressive, including many of the staticky bad-signal fuzzes and neo-industrial electronic drones that provide the signature sonic atmospheres that permeate his works.

    After completing Zero (shot in only five days over the span of more than a year), Fotopoulos showed it to a local film critic known for his support of avant-garde film. The critic, however, was less than supportive. "He couldn't say it was bad, but wouldn't say it was good," Fotopoulos recalls. "So he just tells me, 'You can't do this.' He told me that I couldn't mix narrative and avant-garde techniques."

    Nevertheless, the feature garnered limited video distribution through the small label Provisional, run by noted rock writer Joe Carducci. Despite his genre-bending, transgressive film style, Fotopoulos himself isn't a video-geek indie wannabe or trendy scenester. Conservatively dressed and socially reserved, Fotopoulos is less Film Threat than Film Culture. Once his interest is sparked, however, he passionately discusses his deep admiration for canonical auteurs like Welles, Ford, Hawks, Godard and Fassbinder, and expounds strikingy complex explanations of his own art. There are few other filmmakers his age who would assert in conversations that "color in cinema is a big problem today" or "the best actors understand themselves as objects," but at the same time, his expectations of his own work are relatively understated. His own films, he explains, are "very insular, very interior things. I do them thinking that no one's going to watch them. So what if it's two-and-a-half hours long and people can't sit through it? I can't worry about that. If they even show in five good-sized cities, that would be great."

    Fotopoulos has received more recognition with Migrating Forms, which won awards at the Chicago and New York Underground Film Festivals and continues to play around the world. Migrating Forms reworks many of the same structural and thematic concerns of Zero, but in ways that are more subtle, controlled, abstracted and detached. The story takes place in the unremarkable urban apartment of a young man who is having an affair with a slatternly blonde. Most of the film consists of their awkward interactions before sex, interspersed with silent anamorphic dream images of women's bodies, suggesting a vaguely unsettling, oceanic escape from crushingly mundane reality. As their affair continues, an impossibly large cyst grows on the woman's back. Whereas Zero dealt with the problem of exteriorizing the main character's sexual and thanatological drives, Migrating Forms takes these concerns and disperses them into the diffuse atmosphere of the film. At only 80 minutes, it feels like a pure, perfectly crafted object.

    His short films vary widely in scope and purpose, sometimes feeling like working sketches for the features, but always done with a stand-alone integrity. A couple of very brief silent shorts?Two Cats (1999) and Breathe (2000)?are each less than a minute long. These continue Fotopoulos' interests in the exterior depiction of interior states, each fluttering moment seeming to capture the essence of a fleeting, perhaps oneiric memory. Other shorts play like cubist horror films, juggling images of meaty skulls, murdered corpses, and grotesque alien anatomies. One of the most powerful and direct shorts, Drowning (2000), plays with shooting images entirely off a video monitor. With colors shifted into electric blues, the film depicts a thin, smiling young woman taking her clothes off for the camera, and shifting around on a bed in various stereotypical porn poses. Her movements are sped up to herky-jerky silent film speeds, and the camera zooms in to focus on still video frames of her hair and eyes. The effect is profoundly antipornographic, perhaps even spiritual. It's an attempt to force a glimpse of redemptive humanity out of the dehumanizing esthetics of pornography.

    Working at a breakneck exploitation-style speed, Fotopoulos is currently editing a third feature, Back Against the Wall, set in the world of Midwestern "lingerie modeling"; shooting a fourth feature, Esophagus, which takes place over 500 million years; and beginning production on a fifth feature, Christabel, based loosely on the poem by Coleridge. His devotion to filmmaking is no less obsessive and overpowering than the psychic tumult depicted in his films, yet he's fully aware that he's living a kind of mystically monkish anachronism through his art.

    "If I had to work in film in some other time," he says, "I'd want it to be the silent era. It was all new. The notion that you were shooting in this way, that was new. You're inventing everything as you go. You're making like 400 movies in the middle of the desert."

    Zero screens Tues., Nov. 21, 9 p.m., at Collective Unconscious, 145 Ludlow St. (betw. Stanton & Rivington Sts.), 254-5277, www.rbmc.net. Migrating Forms and short films by James Fotopoulos screen Nov. 24-26 at Anthology Film Archives, 32 2nd Ave. (2nd St.), 505-5181. Zero can be ordered from www.fantasmainc.com.