DC NOIR and Sleeping in Plastic both brought a film noir feel to the 26th Austin Film Festival and Writers Conference in Austin, Texas, October 24-31. However, the two films could not have been more different.
In American cinema history, film noir, as a genre, goes back to the 1940s, inspired by the German Expressionism movement earlier in the century. Film noir is generally described as visually and thematically dark, involving murder and other crimes, often with erotic nuances. Characters usually included cynical detectives and women of questionable virtue. Classics of this genre include The Maltese Falcon, Double Indemnity, and Touch of Evil.
DC NOIR is strong on story, while Sleeping in Plastic brought the darkness.
Based on the work of writer George Pelecanos, DC NOIR presented an anthology of short stories, directed by George Pelecanos, Gbenga Akinnagbe, Stephen Kinigopoulos, and Nicholas Pelecanos. The stories all came from and were centered in the poor neighborhoods of Washington, D.C., Pelecanos’ hometown. The film was shot there as well.
Pelecanos is known for writing detective novels in the spirit of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Mickey Spillane, and John le Carré. Recently he has expanded his repertoire, writing episodes of HBO series The Wire and Treme and is the creator with David Simon of The Deuce.
With a writer of that background, as you might expect, the strong points of this film are the stories. They are so well written and acted that one finds oneself feeling empathy for characters dealing drugs, generally being bums, and otherwise avoiding the law and hard work. Like classic noir, there are also police characters. I found Sergeant Peters, played by Jay O. Sanders (Sam on Sneaky Pete), particularly entertaining. He was the classic, good hearted beat cop, working the street for 22 years, with a back that hurt if he sat too long. I could relate to that.
The stories in the anthology are not linked, except for the theme of how difficult and challenging it is to live in D.C. and to be a good person. There are plenty of tears in these stories.
Where this film differed from classic noir was in its visual presentation. It was primarily shot in the daytime and in well lit interiors. But, on the strength of its stories it is the superior of the two films.
Watch for it and go see it when it gets distribution.
Sleeping in Plastic, on the other hand, gets points for visuals, dark ambiance, all-around technical excellence and great acting. It is a noir masterpiece in terms of look and feel, but on the story side there are problems.
The film premiered at Austin Film Festival and has been accepted at the Mallorca International Film Festival. It is a first-time feature for writer/director Van Ditthavong. His background was in still photography for two Texas magazines. During the Q&A after the film he recalled how, as he drove around Texas, he met many people and “…had plenty of time to daydream.”
The plot of Sleeping in Plastic involves high-school wrestler Brandon, played by Alex MacNicoll (Colton in Transparent and 17-year-old Dick Cheney in Vice). Brandon has conflicts with his teammates and is torn between his affection for one of his classmates and a new girl who drifts into town. The wrestling coach, played by Nick Chinlund (Training Day, UltraViolet) tries to help, but makes things worse.
Paige McGarvin (Psycho BFF, Totally TV) plays his classmate. While I was waiting in line to go in to see Sleeping in Plastic, a lady walked by twice. I thought to myself, “Wow, she should be in movies.” It was Paige. During the Q&A, she commented, “I don’t often get to play the good girl.” She did an excellent job.
The not-so-good girl, Pearla, played by Addison Timlin (Fallen, Californication), lures Brandon into driving her around while she turns tricks. When her pimp discovers what’s going on, things go downhill rapidly. Timlin has some of the most dramatic moments in the film and demonstrates her great range as an actress.
I had some problems with the story. I bounced these off several other people in the audience after the screening, just to make sure I wasn’t being dense. I wasn’t.
The film begins with a violent dramatic encounter which set up a mystery that I anticipated would be resolved by the end of the film. It wasn’t. The fate of Brandon and Pearla is not explained. Leaving what happens to the two main characters unexplained is one way to end a movie, but it was disappointing.
The film goes off on tangents, such as the ultimate fate of the wrestling coach, which at that point has no effect of Brandon and Pearla. If these digressions could be trimmed bringing the film down from 109 minutes to more like 90, it would be a better experience.
And then there is the title. No one understood that either. I ran into McGarvin during a writing class the next day and asked her about it. She said that in order to make weight, high school wrestlers sometimes sleep in plastic. They, like the people in this story, go to an extreme to achieve a goal. Not a bad title, but I think writer/director Ditthavong should have come up with a way to help more people understand it. (I was on my high school wrestling team and I didn’t get it.)
If you’d like to hear an interview with Ditthavong, check out the Austin Film Festival On Story site here.
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