Kelli Garner, Jack Davenport, Peter Coyote
Don’t get too excited, Don DeLillo fans. Americana isn’t a film adaptation of the postmodern writer’s first novel, nor is it the slice-of-life meditation on American culture that the title suggests. This full-length feature debut from director Zachary Shedd is a brooding art-house film in the neo-noir tradition, and it relies as much on the juxtaposition of images and distinctive camera angles as it does dialogue or traditional narrative—maybe even more so.
David Call (TV’s The Magicians) plays Avery Wells, an alcoholic whose descent into the bottle seems to have begun even before he and sister Kate (Kelli Garner), a well-known actress, were involved in a late-night accident on Sir Francis Drake Blvd. A pedestrian was killed, but the details are deliberately vague because, typical of noir outings, every body is a mystery to solve amid all the shadows, dark interiors, and world-weary characters.
We’re not exactly sure of the time frame—with only an IV-paced drip of information it even takes a while to figure out the basic premise—but we do know that Avery is such a drunk that no one in Hollywood will hire him anymore. That changes when a brother-in-law and his wife and producer Calib Andrews (Jack Davenport) sober him up, take him under their wing, and Calib tasks him with editing Americana, a film starring Kate. On the wall are notes from the previous film editor—not quite a storyboard, but an attempt to create a cohesive whole out of all the scenes and sequences. Not surprisingly, that’s exactly what Shedd does, giving us details piecemeal, so that over the course of the film’s 81 minutes we begin to make sense of the plot pretty much as Avery does.
For Avery, the plot “sickens” when someone close to him is killed—ironically, in a scene that will remind many viewers of Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960). That presents the audience with two deaths to ponder, and while it may sound enticing to mystery lovers, this is no hard-boiled affair. Peter Coyote, the most recognizable name in the cast, dispenses psychiatric advice to Avery, but almost every male character in the film speaks using the same mellow and measured tones of a shrink… or hypnotist. The filming style also works against the whole notion of a thriller because it creates tension, serving as a substitute for plot-induced drama. In fact, we don’t even feel much when Calib pressures Avery to finish cutting the film so that they can capitalize on a bounce in Kate’s popularity. What we focus on is the way that Shedd chooses to tell the story.
Stylistically, Americana is fascinating, but also relentless. There are very few two-shots, medium shots, eye level shots, or long shots that mimic the way the human eye most comfortably views the world. Shedd and cinematographer Justin Charles Foster instead look for odd angles and unusual ways to mirror or reinforce the fragmentation of the film editor’s task. Shedd plumbs a noir world of mostly interior spaces that more than suggest the main character’s situation and frame of mind, and when I say “more than”, I mean just that. It’s a bit much, even oppressive. What begins as an interesting exercise in style-as-content loses some of its appeal as the sheer weight of all the ponderously shot scenes begin to accrue. And yet, though some of the camerawork can detract from the narrative at times, there are some awfully nice cuts, dissolves, and juxtapositions to admire.
In one striking example, after we hear a woman asking Avery, “Are you okay?” there’s a quick cut to Avery in a room shot from the waist up, leaning forward, presumably peeing, though we don’t hear the stream. Then we get an associative cut to an exterior close-up of a fast-flowing stream and a pullback shot to show Avery sitting nearby. That’s followed by a cut to an extreme close-up of a bottle of vodka being poured into a glass (another “stream”), and again, a pullback shot to see the context.
Throughout the film, similar shots are of images that seem at first indistinct or else appear as one thing when we see later it’s something quite different. We see, for example, a close shot of Avery by a table and we imagine him still in solitude, but then a hand with glass or bottle reaches in front of him as the camera pulls back, and when it pulls back even more, we see another hand on a glass: Avery is at a bar. Or there’s the nifty form dissolve that begins with the slightly abstract suggestion of a pool of blood widening and ends with that circle being a veritable peephole into the next scene.
Of equal interest are the exaggerated over-the-shoulder shots Shedd employs, taking something so routine and changing it dramatically just by lowering the camera to waist-level, so it captures most of a person’s back or chair—darkening much of the screen so that the focal person is now squeezed into an extreme closed-form frame. It’s a technique Shedd uses successfully throughout the film.
The most original shot is what first looks like a three-way split screen. Our eyes are drawn to a center-panel medium shot of a shirtless Avery in bed as sunlight streams in through the window. To the right is a darkened panel. In the left panel is a dimly lit room with a fireplace that, we begin to realize, is a scene that has someone’s legs in the foreground, feet propped on an ottoman with the body and face out-of-frame. In a clever reveal, as we hear a voice talking to Avery, the camera slowly pans left. As it does, the middle and center frames disappear and we realize that the middle frame and left frame were really in the same room. The man in the chair and Avery, we realize, are in the same room, and yet something is amiss: the window is now on the other side. Contemporary filmmakers break the 180-degree rule all the time, but seldom with the kind of flair that we see in Americana.
Essentially, through camera angles and movement, Shedd and Foster play with the reality that viewers experience—a reality that changes right before our eyes. It’s almost magical. Unfortunately, the plot twists and turns aren’t nearly as effective as the stylistic ones. The story drags because it’s not hard to see what’s around the bend, and maybe that’s why the camerawork we’ve depended upon for tension and interest starts to buckle under the weight of expectation. It gets old.
Still, Americana is the kind of film that you appreciate for its technical merit—an interesting enough debut that makes you wonder what the director will do next. It comes to DVD from Candy Factory Films without bonus features, presented in 2.35:1 aspect ratio and with Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound. Not rated, it would probably merit a PG-13 for violence, adult situations, and some language.