The Chicago-based, not-for-profit production house Split Pillow means to reclaim “outsider” cinema for serious consideration. To that end, they use an old parlor game as their basis, tossing an “exquisite cadaver” at the camera. Pillow’s head honcho Jason Stephens hired 11 production companies, scheduled them individually along an 11-week timetable, and gave them a simple directive: each unit was to create one chapter in an 11-chapter film, following a continuous storyline and using the same set of characters. The result was released in 2003 and is now new to DVD. It’s called… The Cliffhanger (cue ominous music).
The plot follows a mysterious videotape that connects a diverse group. Nellie (Annie Sisson) and her mother (Teresa Powell) want Darius Fabrisio (Joel Paul Resig) killed for what is on that tape and have asked yuppie crime boss Charlie (Michael Stailey) to put a contract out on him. At the same time, a hooker named Iris (Laura Lonigro) contacts Darius’ brother, Anthony (Jesse Menendez), hoping he can help them both out; she too has a link to the cassette. Nellie’s friend Lacey (Lisa Scott) is locked in a sadomasochistic lesbian romance with a shady lady named Ashley (Rebecca Norris). At her mistress’ command, Lacey takes Nellie to a bar, where the unsuspecting Miss is assaulted. Eventually, the New York crime syndicate sends “a cleaner” to mop up the mess resulting from all the double-crosses and strange alliances.
For the most part, the filmmakers pull off the prank perfectly. Some apply more style than others, a few favor in-depth character studies over action. Some just want to muck things up for the sake of being different. One constant in this experiment in “improvisational cinema” (as Stephens refers to it) are the repeated references to neo-auteurs like David Lynch, David Cronenberg, and Quentin Tarantino. Where a previous generation cited Hitchcock and Truffaut, occasionally Godard, current cinephiles imitate the duality of Blue Velvet, the detachment of Crash, and the crackerjack dialogue of Pulp Fiction.
It’s safe to say that this result is far from a masterpiece. It is too scattershot. But it also offers magnificent moments. The Cliffhanger feels a lot like Twin Peaks, with one who-done-it divided into individual installments, each shaped by a different creative crew and all leading to closure. Because the sections are so brief, however, you need to remember pieces of performances and half-heard conversations in order to keep the plot straight in your head.
Approaching the picture like a series of short subjects encourages patience for a weak segment, as another is always around the corner. Characters aren’t fleshed out (even with entire chapters devoted to them) and so, directors rely on visual gimmicks (Charlie appears in carefully cropped segments, a hitman has a comic limp). Only Iris stands out, because almost all the filmmakers favor this shattered chanteuse. The film itself features a commentary track that addresses its stumbles, along with war stories occasionally more entertaining than the visuals they accompany. And there is no want for how-to tips: they discuss everything from using a glass block as a lens to in-camera editing.
A second disc of bonus material in the DVD set includes Split Pillow’s commentary on efforts to get the movie made (in the featurette, Searching for Exquisite) and an hour-long documentary on the individual crews at work. This reveals differences in vision: just when one crew is getting its cinematic swerve on, another comes along and fudges the whole thing up. Chapter Four (helmed by Thomas Lisa) and Chapter Six (a nod to QT by Juan Castadena) want to be dark comedies. Chapter Seven (Dan Mohr) is a music video that MTV will never show. But Chapter Eight (Charlie Lermer) is the real problem here, contorting a couple of characters and all that came before it. Other chapters try damage control, especially Nine (Dennis Belogorsky) and 10 (Gary Overstreet), but the movie doesn’t get the wind back into its sails before the quiet, ethereal ending. Matt Gabor’s magnificent, moving Chapter 11 single-handedly makes this movie worth viewing, at least once.
Since no emotional undercurrent can be maintained, we have to go with the surface in The Cliffhanger. We become wrapped up in how things look and the ever-widening plot holes instead of the characters and their drama, which is entertaining, if also exasperating. Louis Lapat’s second chapter sets up a Lost Highway videotape motif, and Sean Jordan’s third is the most stylized (he focuses only on females, shooting them in extreme close-up, mixing suggestive glances and images of half-full wine glasses into a montage of melancholy).
Chris Tzoubris nails his introductory chapter, creating what is essentially an existential “trailer” for the rest of the movie (he acknowledges this in the included commentary track). The movie gets a pornographic bent from Chris Koranek’s fifth chapter, with all its handheld video voyeurism and snippets of snuff film sex. It is by far the most daring installment in the series. The other segments are mostly underwhelming, especially as novice performances stand out like boom mics in the frame. Joel Paul Resig lacks the gravitas of a juvenile delinquent caught up in capital crimes, and Annie Sisson’s tirades are over the top.
As a decent, minor erotic thriller, The Cliffhanger exemplifies the exquisite cadaver philosophy perfectly, unfocused but fun. And the DVD offers useful lessons in independent production, celebrating the scattershot nature of Split Pillow’s experiment. Perhaps this entire endeavor should be considered a work in progress, a first attempt at something that will only get better in future installments.