When I received an invitation to a movie screening sponsored by the Annapolis Pretentious Film Society, my first thought was that they called the wrong guy. I’ve seen a fair amount of Tarkovsky, but I also cried during P.S. I Love You, so I’d hardly consider myself having pretentious taste in films. Luckily, The Society seems less about snobbery and more about smart taste, as evidenced by their latest showcase of the underdog yet incredibly clever film The Scenesters last Thursday at Ramshead.
Combining genres is tricky, especially those genres that depend on surprise endings (mystery) and impeccable timing (comedy). The Scenesters compounds the challenge inherent in both by weaving them together in an ultra-meta-film comprised of a story within story within story – and sprinkled with a few other side stories for good measure. But Scenesters, which stars the comedy group The Vacationeers, deals with both genres brilliantly, proving that you don’t need Hollywood sparkle to make an excellent film. One would think that viewing a three-tiered mystery sounds like a lot of work for the audience. Yet the film is supremely comfortable to watch, kept light by the cleverly awkward comedic timing of the dialogue, and intriguing by each layer of the meta-story which is filmed in a drastically different style. Courtroom TV complete with yellow lights and grainy horizontal lines is spliced into elegant film noir replete with murky shadows, both of which are encased in a low-fi, candid style documentary, with a number of other stylings as window dressing.
The movie’s rich plot centers on a mock documentary recounting the discovery of a series of links between murder cases by an aspiring-filmmaker-turned-crime-scene videographer Wallace Cotten (played by writer/director Todd Berger). He and his director recruit a smart HAZMAT cleaner named Charlie Newton (Blaise Miller) to star in a film noir murder mystery. The only problem is that they are playing with real evidence and a serial killer on the loose. The black and white mystery sequence and the documentary ultimately land the characters in a courtroom and way over their heads.
In the question and answer session after the showing (which is a standard feature of the Society’s screenings), director Todd Berger unveiled some of the production details. Though he didn’t reveal the movie’s budget, he did say that it was quite low – think along the lines of The Hangover’s budget divided by four hundred. Some of the final film was found, documentary and even cleverly ‘real’ footage. In one scene, a blond hipster is stalked through a video camera at a concert: the venue was real, the band was real, and the actress was hired to go to the show and hang out, but she didn’t know where the film crew was or when she was being ‘watched’. For a ‘low-budget’ film, The Scenesters also boasts a fantastic soundtrack with many unknown bands that were willing to cheaply license or even donate their music, though some, such as Airborne Toxic Event, have since gone big. The film even sports a few notable cameos such as Robert Shafer (who plays the character ‘Bob Vance’ – Phyllis’ husband on the The Office) and director John Landis.
The Scenesters is thoroughly entertaining and definitely worth the effort to track down, as it has yet to be purchased and is currently available only at private showings and film festivals. If you can’t find a local screening, a vote on IMDB and a queue add on Netflix will go a long way to helping it find its way into wide release. And in the meantime, I for one will be eagerly awaiting the next gem that the Annapolis Pretentious Film Society digs up.