Photographer and experimental filmmaker Carlos Batts takes advantage of digital technology in his fourth short film, constructing an impressionistic narrative inspired by the famous Grant Wood painting, American Gothic. If the painter isn't familiar to you, his portrait of a rather austere sixtysomething couple - standing defensively in front of their farmhouse with a long pitchfork - should be. It's a work that definitely welcomes subjective interpretations - Are they happy? Is it a snapshot of a marriage in crisis? Are they dour empty-nesters, trapped together, until death parts their union - and that's exactly where Batts' film comes in.
The director's video intro sets up a tragic, fictional backstory of the husband/painter who murdered his wife before the picture's debut. Years later, guilt, and the sadness in watching his daughter's multiple personality disorder worsen, drives the father into a state of complete mental collapse. Cult Epics have also included a trio of older shorts, which collectively present their own backstory to Batts' style, and reinforce the filmmaker's skewed little fixations.
Batts employs some elaborate digital compositions in vignettes that largely capture a blossoming and withering farmland, with standard. The dramatic, live-action scenes are also contrasted by temporal flashes - via montages of an open-eyed, partially buried corpse, a brood of roaches, and a rotting humanoid - that are collectively underscored by thrash metal extracts on the standard stereo soundtrack.
A still gallery of images from "American Gothic" fills out the DVD, and includes many characters and portraits absent from the final film.
Of the included bonus films on Cult Epics' lovely DVD, the anti-smoking PSA "Choke" comes off as rather naive; Batts' use of sparse, poetic and onscreen text statements feels like a juvenile finger scolding at a room of cynical grownups. "Clone" mixes music with onscreen, scrawling poetry... and dancing/smoking clowns... and like "Choke," it was filmed in 16mm, and visually embellished on videotape during post-production.
"Puppadere," the best of the trio, was shot in Super 8, and like "Choke," Batts uses various solarizing and contrast effects. Made shortly after finishing high school, "Puppadere" is a ghoulish film regarding a deer skeleton that emerges from a pit of dead animals and wanders through the woods. Batts' DVD intro puts him clearly in the weird & wacky realm of David Lynch - where Lynch has spoken fondly of the 'smiling body bags' he saw as a child, Batts waxes proudly on creating of a working deer puppet made from a real cadaver - and the film managed to freak out a reviewer at "Film Threat" magazine when the director sent a tape to the nascent publication. (The original threadbare review is archived on the DVD as well).
While Batts could have goosed "American Gothic" with some detailed carnage, the focus is on interweaving kinetic images of experimental-styled vignettes with actors framed within a Gothic artifice, and though the short isn't for all tastes, fans of the experimental genre should find his work of interest. (Admittedly, the work of Matthew Barney comes to mind; both authors are the only ones who comprehend their respective imagery, but Batts isn't concerned in straining his symbolism into an epic poem like Barney's "Creamaster" odyssey.) If Batts decides to go for longer narratives, the results should prove more intriguing for viewers.
© 2005 Mark R. Hasan