[10 August 2012]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Personality has always been an artistic element of cinema. At any given moment, how a character reacts to the circumstances they are in or changes the course of situations they are in charge of alters our perception of them and the narrative in general. More times than not, said transformations are exterior. They exist within places and because of things and can be viewed with the alert eye. Some filmmakers, however, have traveled this terrain in a more unclear, insular mode. The Double Life of Veronique, for example, explains its proposal from the title on down. There is something similar going on in many masterful films, from Hitchcock’s Vertigo to that Gwyneth Paltrow dud Sliding Doors.
For Damon Packard, maverick mainstay of the underground LA indie art cinema scene, such a strategy becomes the basis for an examination of time, place, and person entitled Foxfur. Not really a full length feature (it runs a scant 60 minutes), in nonetheless represents the first fully formed effort from the outsized auteur since his brilliant sci-fi scramble, SpaceDisco One. In between, there have been lots of false starts, a startling live-action take on Hayao Miyazaki’s Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, and a few cameo appearances in fellow film freaks experiments (Caleb Emerson’s Frankie in Blunderland, The “Sweets” segment of The Theater Bizarre anthology). Driven by a dream few can comprehend and more than willing to place his unprocessed plans directly on film (or video), he stands as a singular visionary in a world made up, for the most part, of middling mainstream mediocrity.
When we first meet her, the title character is an editor, helping a pair of rap impresarios create their latest music video extravaganza. Almost instantly, she morphs into an obese geek who wants a ride to a local bookstore to check out a favored writer. Along the way, she changes again, into a sunny LA gal with a brain filled with conspiracy theories, posts from Disinformation.com, and self-created cosmic symbiosis. From there, we watch as Foxfur finally discovers her place among a group of animal skin wearing huntresses, the clan canvassing the California valley where the TV version of M*A*S*H* is currently shooting. After they are discovered by security, the girls head off into the woods, only to realize that their true fate lies in a past prophecy, ancient astronauts, a dismissed scholar, and the connection between the perceived world and the long gone apocalyptic passing of the same.
With its links to Packard’s palpable obsessions - fantasy, technology, the ‘70s, extraterrestrials, West Coast New Ageism - and time/space/persona hopping conceit, Foxfur easily becomes the most inaccessible and therefore important, audacious, and satisfying film in the man’s amazing catalog. Like David Lynch’s digital experiment, INLAND EMPIRE merged with a myriad of outside the box ideas, Packard plays fast and loose with reality in order to steer the audience toward ideas they might not otherwise embrace. There’s a level of ludicrous theorizing here that would make even the most seasoned thinker sweat. Foxfur, until the ethereal ending, is one of the filmmakers more “talky” efforts. Good thing Packard is as captivating with mono-dialogue as he is with visuals.
Indeed, there are visionary moments here, as when our heroine starts seeing the ‘black threads’ (oily streaks that scream across the sky), the dead-on shout out to Pixar’s Brave, or when Foxfur and the gang stumble upon some members of the M*A*S*H* company. Packard is a Picasso of unusual juxtaposition. His first masterpiece, Reflections of Evil, played like a surreal speculation on Steven Spielberg and that ‘70s staple, the ABC Movie of the Week. Throw in a bit of freakshow physical comedy (he loves to put his actors, and himself for that matter, in ill-fitting fat suits) and you’ve got one of the most amazing movie experiences you can have. It might not always make logical sense, but when Packard puts on a show, something special is bound to break out.
Yet it’s the message that’s equally meaningful in Foxfur. Without giving too much away, the story suggests an alternate reality where, upon the actual end of the world, human remnants coalesce and merge. It’s like past lives played out among extraterrestrial designs. What happens at the beginning may not 100% link to the eventual reveal, but Packard’s aesthetic logic never fails to fulfill. He always manages to make things tie together. Like Lynch, his dreamscapes seem to defy easy explanation, but buried within their baffling anarchy are serious thoughts on equally sobering subjects. In the case of Foxfur, Packard appears to be outing the ambiguous pointlessness of post-millennial modern life. It’s all artifice and attitude. No wonder Foxfur finds her fate in nature. Nothing about the high tech plane she was placed in can provide such satisfaction.
Like the Dylan ersatz biopic I’m Not Here, Packard also employees the intriguing device of having several actresses play Foxfur, and it works wonderfully. Instead of providing a singular spec for the character, each performer makes it her own. This is especially true of the opening, where one haughty version of our lead has a hard time tolerating the throw down between our hapless hip hop heroes. All throughout the film, Packard plays off such stereotypes. Security guards are actually much more than they appear, while bookstores are less arenas of thought as they are overloaded with suspicious, video-obsessed freeloaders. All throughout the backdrop, people are playing with their cellphones, locked in a kind of clueless consumer K-hole where nothing matters but the next text or Foursquare update. The call back to the origins of life is not only necessary, it’s mandatory.
It’s just a shame that no one in the industry sits down with Packard (and any of his peers, for that matter) and offers him the kind of creative development deal that would allow for access to financing and broader distribution. Sure, he might not be everyone’s cup of cream soda, but he definitely fits in with all the oddball eccentrics that make up much of the current indie scene. In Packard’s case, one imagines a possible rejection to such a pitch. He doesn’t make movies so much as gestate ideas and give long, painful, flawless birth to them. While Foxfur may be smaller in running time, it’s as big in ideas as any of his films. Even through all her different ‘dimensions,’ there is only one Foxfur…and she’s fascinating.