Well, it finally happened: I accidentally saw an art film at Sundance. Many people think that because a film is independently made, that it must be an art film. And sure, a lot of these films are finely crafted and contain a great deal of subtext, or stand as an allegory for one thing or another. But the majority of films we’ve seen at the festival have been straightforward narrative films with a more or less traditional style of storytelling. This is certainly not true of Calvin Lee Reeder’s The Oregonian. This demented collection of grotesque images and sounds, starring True Blood’s Lindsay Pulsipher, is one of this year’s most aggressively confrontational films. To find out more about one of the most difficult films to sit through at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, check out the rest of the review after the jump…
I’d love to tell you what this film is about, but I can’t. It’s not that it’s a surprise best left to be discovered on your own, it’s that I’m really not sure. The film opens with a young woman, whose name is never revealed, leaving a passed out drunk on the side of the road. The next thing we see is the aftermath of a car wreck, where it appears the girl has plowed into a father and child, killing a both. Injured and covered in blood, she stumbles down the desolate road in search of help.
Along the way, she encounters an older woman who says nothing, but smiles and laughs demonically at her. In her journey for help, she encounters several different intimidating nameless characters like a blood-pissing, omelette frying van driver, a journeyman whose face is wrapped in bandages, and a trio of cowboys drinking cocktails of what looks like semen mixed with urine, and a lurking figure in a green felt frog suit. As she travels through this surreal, wooded dreamscape, she encounters visions of the dead family she left, reflections of herself vomiting black blood, and sees herself smiling while being sodomized as a plate of eggs and can of gasoline are poured into a gaping spinal wound. Yeah. That actually happens.
Maybe it’s an excuse for poor journalism, but I prefer to go into a film knowing as little as possible about what I’m going to experience. I put myself in an extremely vulnerable place, emotionally, to allow the filmmaker to really take me on the journey they are leading. But sometimes this theory backfires. Walking out of the theater, I felt confused, disoriented, angry, and truly taken advantage of. Why would anyone feel the need to make such a film, let alone accept it into America’s premier independent film festival?
However, after sleeping on it (a night absent of dreams, thankfully), I woke up with a different opinion. After all, there is a rich tradition of experimental art cinema which is hardly palatable, but illuminates the medium’s potential for different kinds of expression. The film contains stylistic references to Alejandro Jodorowsky, Nicholas Roeg, and David Lynch; all of whom are superstars among surrealists, and hold a great deal of influence over the evolution of movies’ ability to change the way we consume art. Just because we are conditioned to expect broad entertainment and easily digested drama doesn’t mean that a movie has to be just that.
The filmmakers’ enthusiasm for experimental art cinema is present throughout, in the calculated complexity of its editing and sound design. Each grouping of high speed cuts and abrasive sound bursts is placed precisely to achieve maximum discomfort and shock. You never know where the next upsetting set of imagery and audio will be come from. Switching between 16mm film and super 16, the jarring disparity of the frames holds increasing meaning as the film goes on. Lindsay Pulsipher’s performance is a strong one, if only because she was willing to put herself in the middle of all this madness. There is not a whole lot of range, given the confused nature of her character, but it definitely takes a certain amount of boldness for an actor to dive right into a film with such a difficult mission ahead of it.
This is a decidedly difficult movie, and I certainly can’t say I enjoyed watching it. However, it definitely stands alone as the only film of its kind, made by a director with a unique voice, which is exactly what makes it appropriate for the Sundance Film Festival’s midnight movie category. In spite of over a dozen walkouts, The Oregonian is a film for audiences who are eager to be challenged by a movie’s ability to force them into a dark and cerebral space.
Check out our interview with director Calvin Lee Reeder and star Lindsay Pulsipher, maybe they can help you understand the meaning of the film better….
Video edited by Laura Aguirre