Saul Rubinek’s fourth film as a director is an inventive, slow-building drama that uses confessional and voyeuristic digital camera footage to tell the story of Betty Munson,
a rather neurotic woman who spends two years secretly documenting her life as a single mother after she catches her husband cheating with a blonde bimbo with the family video camera.
Eventually her efforts come full circle; after exposing her ex-husband’s infidelity to her extended family in the opening scenes, she crafts her own video from the mass of footage to mend some of the frayed family relations. The living room ‘premiere’ at the end also signifies her own evolution from an obsessive nag and over-protective mom to a more stable and independent woman who trusts not only her own new life skills, but has faith in others.
It’s a particularly important lesson, because in order to reach that high point, Betty must hit rock bottom, and that comes when her manic need to document private moments is halted after son Darwin finds the camera she kept hidden in his bedroom.
With the cat out of the bag, the potential for a complete meltdown is ripe, but the shocking revelation forces Betty to confront the years of obsessively cataloguing of her son, her parents, coworkers, her gynaecologist, and new boyfriend.
Darwin’s rejection of his mother causes Betty to re-examines the hours of footage and makes sense of the behaviour and perceptible self-growth she’s clearly catalogued, and in constructing a video of that difficult two-year period, she edits away from her own life some of the factors that contributed to her fractured marital and familial life.
It’s a weird little journey, and the film’s construction is comprised of the raw footage in chronological order leading up to Betty’s ‘premiere screening’ with her family and lover, albeit edited by Chris Kern and Saul Rubinek into highlights to ensure Cruel has a progressive, dramatic flow for our benefit.
Betty frequently precedes her camera setups with explanatory monologues or nervous gestures, and she clearly enjoys playing the lead in her own life movie, toying with aspects of her femininity, and often indulging in a stream of consciousness babble-talk with viewers (via the camera) and her own son.
Although centrally a drama, Cruel’s humour comes from identifiably naked moments captured on home video. Betty is frequently funny and clumsy, and she sometimes needs a serious Prozac injection just to slow down her nattering, but her earnest desire to raise the best son she can is never in doubt.
Actress Wendel Meldrum wrote the script, and director Rubinek really kept a steady hand in making sure Betty’s journey didn’t devolve into meandering snatches from home movies. The use of jump-cuts to keep scenes dramatically functional is particularly important, and while shot on digital video, the film (and particularly the sets) are very attractive. Colours and set décor also reflect Betty’s attempts to remain stylish when she moves from a $3 million house to a rental apartment managed by a sleaze-ball, and there’s the clutter factor that adds to the physical and social downsizing she’s trying to cope with.
Distributed by Critical Mass and Anchor Bay/Starz, the DVD comes with deleted and longer scene edits, as well as lengthy interviews (naturally filmed in a kind of ‘casual confessional’ style) with director Rubinek, producer Elinor Reid, actress/writer Meldrum, and Meldrum’s real-life son Luke Humphrey (Darwin).
The making-of interviews also cover filming and editing, and further fine details are hashed out in the dual commentaries, with Rubinek and Reid providing blow-by-blow accounts of their production, and Meldrum giving a separate solo commentary on the evolution of her script and character. Both tracks also provide added background info on scenes used in and deleted from the film (most are archived in the huge deleted scene gallery), and their relation to Betty’s two-year growth spurt.
There’s some repetition of material between the interviews and commentaries, but for those keenly curious about how a loose concept moved from monologues to a finished film, the DVD provides a solid examination of rare work where filmmakers used home video gear as an integral narrative component in a drama.
Saul Rubinek’s other films as director includes Jerry and Tom (1998), Club Land (2001), Bleacher Bums (2002).
To read a lengthy interview with director Rubinek, click HERE !
© 2009 Mark R. Hasan