J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Sunday, August 04, 2013

Fantasia ’13: Go Down Death

It came from Brooklyn (a warehouse in Greenpoint to be exact), but it is set in a fantasy world unconstrained by narrative logic.  There is little employment in this shunned village, yet young Butler holds down a multitude of jobs, including grave-digging.  He will be busy.  Life is indeed poor, nasty, brutish, and short, but words hold great significance in Aaron Schimberg’s Go Down Death (trailer here), which screens tomorrow during the 2013 Fantasia International Film Festival.

This is Jonathan Mallory Sinus’s world.  The celebrated poet not only created the sickly village, he also lives there as a character.  Sinus is the one who amputated both his legs for his own existential satisfaction. Disease and suffering are commonplace in this environment, as Butler soon learns—sort of.  It is hard to put much stock in his doctor’s diagnoses, given his shape-shifting and his stalker-like behavior.

Most of the men inside the hamlet spend their time playing cards and frequenting the working women upstairs, while two soldiers tromp through the surrounding forest like characters in a Beckett play.  It might not sound like much of an existence, but most everyone seems to find it preferable to the dreaded Gomorrah-like Big City.

Absolutely not to be confused with Spencer Williams’ morality tale, Go Down Death is essentially Hell’s sketch comedy show, stringing together macabre vignettes that share common characters and settings, but do not form a very cohesive storyline.  Sometimes they work and sometimes they just peter out, like post-1990’s SNL sketches.  At least, Schimberg maintains a thoroughly and distinctly weird vibe nearly the whole way through, as if H.P. Lovecraft took over as the show-runner for The Andy Griffith Show.  Unfortunately, he eventually breaks from his carefully constructed universe with a disappointingly flat bit of hipsterism.

Down is not the sort of film that serves as a willing showcase for the talents of its cast.  Instead of tapping into their deep emotional reserves, they simply mold themselves to fit Schimberg’s creepy tableaux.  Nevertheless, the quality of Rayvin Disla’s work as Butler comes through all the murky stylization quite clearly.  Sammy Mena also conveys the pathos of the outsider in a rather bold performance as Rosenthal, one of the gamblers, who has a rather complicated pseudo-romantic relationship with the club singer, Milda.  Although underwritten by conventional film standards, she is one of the few apparently humane figures in this world, played with a good measure of sensitivity by Simone Xi.

Wearing its love for its love for Tod Browning’s Freaks on its sleeve, Down freely mixes horror and surreal tragedy. Arguably, the key ingredient is Jimmy Lee Phelan’s timeless, otherworldly black-and-white cinematography. Yet, when it finally seems to get somewhere, viewers will wonder why it bothered.  The results are a wildly mixed bag—albeit one that is obviously the product of some considerable combined talents.  Recommended for those who favor style over substance, Go Down Death screens tomorrow (8/5) at the J.A. De Seve Theatre as part of this year’s Fantasia Festival.

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