Strange and Unreal
Who knew, dude? Alex Winter (Bill, of the original dumb and dumber duo, Bill & Ted) is actually an intelligent and promising writer/director. In Fever, his second feature (the first was Freaked in 1993), he displays the ambition to make a serious film, and has obviously done his film history homework, assimilating techniques that have made so many “art” films challenging and enduring. That said, Winter may have more in common with Nick Parker (Henry Thomas), his hero in Fever, a mediocre and unsuccessful artist, than Luis Buñuel or Jean Renoir. Not to say that Fever is either completely pretentious, or completely unsophisticated. It simply tries too hard to be “arty” and haunting, and falls flat because it is, for the most part, simply dull.
Winter never pushes the film’s ideas far enough in any direction to challenge the viewer past the point of literal plot analysis; though his intentions are good, his scope is entirely too limited to accomplish his purpose, stated in a “Director’s Statement” that accompanies Fever‘s press release. Winter’s intentions are to compensate for “the scarcity of films that rely on a pure cinematic language to drive the narrative, as opposed to the dialogue or plot.” Winter sets out to be different, to oppose current trends in filmmaking, yet he also states that his “influences were primarily older films.” Perhaps Alex Winter is unaware that the innovative techniques developed in “older films” have long been assimilated into Hollywood’s cinematic language, and their novelty eclipsed by newer filmic lingos. Winter’s collection of impressionistic techniques, surreal scenes, and claustrophobic spaces, all previously effective conventions in older art films, never coheres into a “pure cinematic language” that is all his own. His language in Fever is too literal to even approach the “dream-like atmosphere of Kenji Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu or Buñuel’s Los Olvidados,” that he claims to want to establish.
Fever takes the stilted and narrow perspective of Nick, a painter and art instructor living in Greenpoint, a primarily Polish neighborhood in Brooklyn. The troubled, moody, and somnambulent Nick is on the verge of losing his job, reliving a past trauma, and suffering from an unidentified physical illness, when his overbearing landlord is mysteriously murdered in his bed. So begins Fever‘s murder mystery plot. Unfortunately, a rousing game of Clue is a hell of a lot more suspenseful than the mystery here. The list of suspects includes an old drunk, previously evicted by the grumpy old landlord, a mysterious and reclusive new tenant, Will (David O’Hara, whom viewers will recognize as Braveheart‘s crazy Irishman), and, of course, Nick himself. There seem to be no other tenants in the building, an impression that contributes to the film’s paranoid and claustrophobic atmosphere. This limited cast of characters, especially Will, revolves completely around Nick, but the fact is that he is too weak a character to support an entourage of peripherals. He is not believable as either a tormented artist or a tormented potential murderer, and ends up coming off as a cranky insomniac. Henry Thomas tries really hard for dark and brooding but looks too much like Doogie Howser, M.D. with a forehead reduction to really pull it off (and how convincing was Doogie as a doctor anyway?).
While Thomas is miscast as the disturbed artist Nick Parker, the role of Detective Glass, the cop investigating the landlord’s murder, is perfectly acted by the formidable (and underused and underappreciated) Bill Duke. In scenes together, with Glass questioning Parker about he murder, Thomas is completely overmatched by Duke’s quiet power. Likewise, whenever Nick confronts Will, he all but disappears. It’s hard to tell who Nick Parker is. He might be an undiscovered genius whose passion overwhelms his reason, except that he doesn’t appear very passionate about his work and paints with a slow deliberation as though it were a tedious exercise. He might be an alienated loner, despairing of love and human connection. But in a scene with his affluent family, it is clear that Nick has some kind of support network, especially in his sympathetic older sister, Charlotte (Teri Hatcher). And on top of that, the gorgeous nude model in Nick’s art class is all but throwing herself at him. So what’s his problem? Who is this guy?
The idea of the secluded artist, suffering alone in his garret in poverty and creative crisis, has been overused and taken apart by existentialist thinkers who posited that the condition of the alienated individual, or outsider, is not inherently related to genius, excessive creative ability, or insight. Nick Parker’s creative urge and his social alienation need not be related in the least. However, in Fever, the two are visually connected in Winter’s cinematic language. The camera pans slowly over a blackboard covered with Nick’s anatomy drawings and dwells repeatedly on a face in a painting that he works on throughout the film. He’s tormented by nightmares that cause him to sleepwalk around his apartment building at night, presenting the possibility that he may have murdered the landlord in his sleep. In one dream, it is revealed that his mother—who died of a heroin overdose—was also a painter, underlining this connection between creativity and suffering, addiction, and loneliness.
If Nick Parker’s condition is alienation, it becomes less difficult to analyze his mental dissipation and acute anxiety. Rather than dismiss his moodiness as the general state of all creative people, Nick could be seen as a contemporary Raskolnikov, a man unwilling to face his own limitations, therefore his own existence in relation to other people. Winter gives us another metaphor, clearly stated in the title, of sickness, an idea that has been associated with the human ontological condition at least since Kierkegaard. What for Dostoyevsky often took the form of “brain fever,” and for Kierkegaard, The Sickness Unto Death, was also important in the work of later existentialists. One of Sartre’s early novels was called La Nausee; Albert Camus took on modern alienation in The Plague, and in The Stranger, attributed Monsieur Mersault’s homicide to “sun-sickness”; and Henri Barbusse wrote a novel called L’Enfer.
The fever in Barbusse’s novel is a symbol for a less easily identifiable malaise. In Winter’s film, the fever is literal, when it is revealed that Nick has been suffering from a high fever and has been delirious. The fever metaphor is potentially effective because it universalizes Nick’s state. All of us are subject to delusional and near-psychotic states when our body temperature rises just a few degrees. However, Nick’s illness is never visible. He doesn’t look sick, just stubbly and restless, and the fever seems like more of an afterthought, an easy explanation for Nick’s agitation and hallucinations, than a symbolic construct.
Fever never feels feverish, never communicates nausea with its cinematic language. Instead, it opts for an often unbearably slow-pace to build tension, then falls flat. In addition to his nightmares, Nick has visions of the landlord’s elderly mother (also a murder victim) flying above him like an angel while he lies in bed (it’s a really weird image that is more laughable than surreal). Another strange element is Will, the upstairs tenant who draws Nick into conversations about Naziism and the nature of evil. Will is never seen or spoken to by anyone but Nick, begging the question of whether or not he actually exists or is simply an invention of Nick’s feverish mind. This ambiguity is certainly intriguing, but Will becomes so much more interesting than Nick that he can’t possibly function as a part of Nick’s underdeveloped personality. Eventually, Nick and Will battle each other to the death on the subway, each accusing the other of murder, a scene that could obviously be read as Nick fighting himself, his “will.”
But it is precisly will that Nick lacks as he wanders around in search of some vague objective. Is he, like O.J., searching for the “real killer?” Is he looking for his muse? His lost childhood? The inability to act is an ideal set up for inner conflict in a literary character, but not a cinematic one. If Winter wanted to create a “dream world” in which a troubled artist confronts his inner demons, he should have attempted to make Nick’s nightmare visible and real to the viewer, instead of hiding it behind the furrowed brows and tossing, sleeping body of his hero. For all that Winter has attempted in Fever—as a combination art film, murder mystery, and psychological drama—the result is inconclusive and unsatisfying, in artistic, narrative, and cinematic senses. It is admirable for a filmmaker to strive for “pure cinematic language” in his work, but that language must be in the service of a fully realized idea so that form serves content, as well as content, form.