Plan 9 from Syracuse (2007)

2007-10-12

By their very definition, dreamers don’t see the world through a wholly realistic perspective. They exist in the “what if”, not the “what now”. To them, life is a series of endless possibilities, prospects draped in the ‘can do’ spirit that forged the greatest triumphs of art, policy, and invention. Of course, no one can convince them of the truth – that most wishes go unfulfilled, and the old axiom of being able to do whatever you put your mind to only works for those who’ve achieved their quixotic aims. For independent filmmaker Ryan Dacko, movies offer that kind of mythic magic. To make them, to market them to a public eager to experience his work, is all he’s ever wanted. Unfortunately, a nagging little something called cash kept getting in his way.

After several unsuccessful attempts to fund his latest feature (the revisionist vampire epic Dead Heaven) Dacko came up with a radical strategy – the inspired desperation of running across the United States. By doing so, the writer/director hoped to attract the attention of a “mystery producer”, as well as draw support from the Internet through a web journal and online benefactors. The plan was simple – start off from Syracuse, run approximately 35 miles a day for 90 days, arrive in Los Angeles to much fanfare and media interest and, hopefully, achieve a longed for 30 minute meeting with his business model target. With a scant few weeks to prepare, Dacko envisioned few obstacles in his way.

But as the amazing documentary Plan 9 from Syracuse (new to DVD from Sub Rosa Studios) suggests, even the best laid, most complicated and fussed over schemes often go wildly astray. In the case of Dacko’s cross country trek, for every mile achieved, it was time to learn some difficult lessons. No one can question his dedication. You don’t attempt a physical feat of this nature and not have faith in yourself and your passions. Getting other people to buy into it however, including the object of said desire (it turns out to be Dallas Maverick’s owner – and film producer – Mark Cuban) seems insane. Call it ballyhoo blackmail, the kind of PR pressure that only a stunt like this can produce.

Dacko is a distraction at first, self-absorbed and just a tad cocky. Relying on the reception he received for his first film, the little seen And I Lived as a sign he should pursue filmmaking full time, he grabs the four other screenplays in his creative arsenal and goes about the shoe leather lengths toward getting noticed. That it doesn’t happen after several years is no surprise – there are outside auteurs all over the world relying on camcorder calling cards to gain some mainstream attention and acceptance. But Dacko is different. He’s got it all figured out, down to the prospectus, the possible DVD cover art, and the return on his financier’s investment. That all this preplanning fails to get him a deal should suggest something, but he clearly doesn’t want or just can’t take the hint.

The run is truly a last gasp, the final folly for someone who, perhaps, has yet to realize his artistic limits. But once he takes to the highways of America, all of this pretense falls away. Accompanied by absolutely stunning music by sonic shoe-gazers The Lost Patrol, Dacko’s journey becomes that always recognizable slide into self-discovery. Mile after mile, day after day, our filmmaker battles with inner demons – doubt, muscle and joint pain, unexpected delays, and the nagging belief that he may never get that meeting. About a third of the way through the trip, Dacko learns that the producer thinks he’s a joke, a shill going about his sales pitch the absolutely wrong way. For a moment, our hero is devastated. But with bigger aims now taking over, Dacko pushes on.

From this moment forward, Plan 9 from Syracuse becomes something totally different. It’s a stunning travelogue, complete with still photos and videoed landscapes that shock you with their scope and beauty. It’s a telling personal portrait, Dacko trying to defend his idealism within an increasingly pointless (at least professionally) trick. It’s a love letter to a nation often reduced to a series of politically backed buzzwords and tabloid talking points. Some would argue that Dacko’s time and energy would have been better served simply going out and making more of his own movies. A single cinematic signature does not define a person’s capacity, and the notion that he’s already been rejected several times in the past seems insignificant, as if this endless marathon will end up interesting the “right” person.

There is an unusual dichotomy here, one that Plan 9 really can’t address. Talent typically wins out, even in the most marginalized of circumstances. There are dozens of fringe filmmakers who get regular distribution for their titles, even if they occasionally come across as basic, backyard productions. To say that Dacko dreams big is an understatement. To say he is capable of delivering what his dreams are promising is a question any legitimate businessman would have. Cuban does come across as crass and flippant, even without appearing on camera. So did Dacko pick the wrong objective, or career path? Without spoiling the ending, the results don’t generate anywhere near the attention he expected. One senses the next David Fincher or Lynch wouldn’t be so easily dismissed.

The bonus features on the DVD appear to support much of this confusion. During the numerous commentary tracks, Dacko is praised for his dedication and ideals. It seems forced and rather fanciful. Elsewhere, the majestic music of The Lost Patrol is featured, and rightfully so. It’s the sonic spirit that binds the entire movie together. Yet what we want are more examples of the vision that fuels his sense of superiority. A songwriter needs a cache of tunes to sell his skill. A painter or photographer typically produces a portfolio. Dacko relies on And I Lived, along with a teaser trailer for Dead Heaven, as the explanations for his entitlement. Again, this doesn’t dissuade us from the terrific documentary before us (also a product of his passion). But without some clearly defined links to his legitimacy, we have a hard time being empathetic.

It’s the kind of identification that keeps Plan 9 from Syracuse from being a monumental success. Unlike American Movie, where Mark Borchardt’s abilities are right up there on the screen for people to champion or challenge, Ryan Dacko remains an enigma. His run across America is an achievement no one can deny. The reasons behind it, however noble, still need the support of something concrete to get us cheering. One thing dreamers have a hard time doing is getting others to buy into their revelation. Sometimes, it’s not a question of dedication, but delusion. No one is saying Dacko doesn’t have the right stuff. Perhaps in this instance it would have been better to shown onscreen.

RATING 8 / 10
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