Cabin Fever Dream
Published on September 22nd, 2011 | by Charles H. Meyer1
Running time: 95 mins. Not rated.
“Shit Year,” Cam Archer’s new film starring Ellen Barkin as an actress suffering from post-retirement ennui, manages to avoid ever inducing boredom despite operating in that extreme mode of art cinema—think Buñuel, Antonioni, Bergman, Godard—that tends to deliberately challenge audience attention spans. It stays interesting for several reasons. Firstly, Barkin is fascinating and utterly perfect in her complex portrayal of Colleen West, a jaded, world-weary veteran of thirty-five films in thirty years. Her spot-on, unpredictable, yet consistent performance holds “Shit Year” together, as it should because it is the melancholy heart of Archer’s very personal film. Secondly, the film switches locations and visual textures so abruptly and frequently as to continually disrupt our gazes and trains of thought, forcing us to constantly re-orient ourselves to its non-linear, peripatetic non-narrative. Lastly, it was shot in just sixteen breathless days in exquisite black and white, taking full advantage of the heightened formal qualities—chiaroscuro, texture, abstraction—that black and white enables, such that never once does the pedestrian question occur, “Why didn’t they just shoot it in color?” So many shots in this film achieve such a sublime, uncanny beauty, and in such varied ways, that I found “Shit Year” impossible not to enjoy on a purely hedonistic, cinephilic level. My only quibble is that, while it offers such abundant visual pleasures, its indebtedness to directors like the aforementioned Europeans, as well as Maya Deren, Andy Warhol, Robert Altman and David Lynch, among others, is all too apparent. “Shit Year,” while undoubtedly an excellent film, strikes me as a commendable accomplishment by a director still in search of his own personal style.
Many people will find “Shit Year” pretentious, and it certainly does walk a tightrope separating pretension from brilliance, occasionally falling on either side. Finding myself torn between those two impressions, I prefer to give the film the benefit of the doubt. Its boldly experimental style will perhaps be most alienating to audiences in the United States, while Europeans might yawn at its mimicry of the styles of the great directors of the various New Waves of the 1960s. But isn’t it about time that the art cinema picked up where its edgier, more experimental roots left off, even if that means appearing rather quaint and old-fashioned compared to the more groundbreaking recent efforts of David Lynch’s “Inland Empire” or Gaspar Noë’s “Enter the Void”?
It occurs to me that I haven’t even provided a semblance of a plot summary. So here goes. Colleen West retires to a cabin in the woods outside of Los Angeles following a farewell stage performance in a play in which she has starred opposite a twenty-two-year-old actor named Harvey West (Luke Grimes), with whom she has carried on a brief, tumultuous love affair. They say that you’re only as old as the person you’re screwing, and as Colleen straddles Harvey in a prelude to sex, she indeed looks as young, albeit far more sexually experienced, than he is. As Harvey tries to figure out his life’s first act, Colleen seems equally uncertain about how to endure her own third act. In a pool-side idyll, the question she poses to him, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” might as well be rephrased to herself as “What do you want to be when you grow old?” Having worn the thirty-five successive personae of her movie roles, Colleen faces the blankness and anxiety of finally having to play herself and having little idea what that’s supposed to mean. As if to fill the void of her lonely hermitage in the woods, her imagination conjures up a surreal, immaculately white void of a space (something akin to the hotel room Dave finds himself in at the end of Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey”) where she undergoes mysterious medical exams and experiences simulations of her life, particularly her fond but frustrating memories of Harvey, as if a life of acting has rendered her capable of experiencing life only as something performed and re-performed, never simply lived.
One of the most satisfying aspects of “Shit Year” is the way its scenes take unexpected turns and contrast with one another to great dramatic effect. Just when we are about to tire of Colleen’s cold, constantly f-bombing cynicism, particularly apparent in her condescension toward and contempt for her cheery neighbor Shelly (Melora Walters), she warms up with a smile, consenting to Shelly’s invitation to make “apple dolls.” As Shelly walks Colleen home, the film’s first genuinely human moments occur between the two women as they talk gravely but comfortably. But this comfort is almost too troubling for Colleen to bear. Feeling she has lost “something” in the woods, she goes searching for it, leaving Shelly and any chance of overcoming loneliness behind. In another scene, Harvey sings and plays an original song on guitar, the song describing the crisis of Colleen’s life all too well, and as it ends, the camera moves close to her face as she begins to weep. “It’s perfect,” she says, “Fuck you.” Besides her interactions with Shelly, Colleen’s brother Rick (Bob Einstein) also provides Colleen with much-needed moments of sane, serious interpersonal engagement. Rick is endearingly kind, if laughably bourgeois in comparison to Colleen. He tells her that he is writing a novel about office supplies that come to comically animated life during after hours. He helps her remove and bury a dead rat they discover while talking outside. Although these scenes are ordinary, the silvery beauty of the cinematography is not, and their presence in the film provides a stabilizing, expository effect that fills out our understanding of Colleen, while more surreal moments—my favorite is when Colleen runs backwards screaming as a couple of men covered completely in tight white body stockings run menacingly at her with sparklers blazing in both hands—illustrate the inner turmoil from which she is suffering. The relative terror of these moments is dramatically balanced by serene shots of Harvey swimming, showering or stretching his arm across the screen. But rather than cancel each other out, these alternating moments of pain and pleasure serve to heighten the effectiveness of both.
“Shit Year” is a fascinating film that is nonetheless likely to divide audiences into lovers and haters. I think it is best viewed with an open, curious mind, one not too insistent on receiving a clear response to that age-old question, “Okay, but what does it all mean?” a question this film asks back in intriguing ways without trying to placate us with any simple answers. To the fair degree that it succeeds in this regard, particularly through the fine work of Archer, Barkin and cinematographer Aaron Platt, “Shit Year” is a work of art and not just an exercise in extreme art cinema style.