Monday, January 03, 2011

Dan Zukovic's Dark Arc (2005) review


If anything is obvious about Dan Zukovic it's that he's a cultural enigma and that a violent personal sense of boredom with modern life pervades his work. Why would someone want to piss off their audience? Why not if it's art with a purpose? The man loves to provoke his audience, to piss them off, and to make them laugh again and think, which in turn makes them even more pissed off, a neat trick.
I can relate. In the embarrassing days of “grunge” he fronted the incident-provoking Northwestern Canadian band “the Gargoyles” whose recorded works must be somewhere next to impossible to find and could be described as incredibly obnoxious. Good luck in your search of his music outside of his films, he's shooting for obscurity on purpose.
Since that time, the raconteur’s been writing and playing his inimitable style of underground rock, writing and directing plays, and so far, one film each decade. His career in theater seems to stretch back to the late 1980s. Zukovic, then, has a solid background in stage, television (he was seen in two episodes of the X-Files) and screen and is mainly known for creating one of the great satiric cult hits of the 1990s: The Last Big Thing, which featured the then-unknown Mark Ruffalo (Shutter Island) in one of his first film performances. Call it myopic, but I have to love someone this determined in making their vision a reality, then hiding it under a bush for the thoughtful.
Zukovic dipped his own toes into the mainstream culture during that lame-ass decade of the 1990s and is found in a memorable character performance in the sci-fiction horror film, Disturbing Behavior; but that's about all he's done for the most part of over a decade as a freelance actor. At one point in the early 1990s he was making appearances in "Matlock" and several in "Days of Our Lives." He's a very elusive man. Just try finding much information on him, anywhere. Even in the age of the Internet, he's managed to remain mostly an enigma. Is he hiding from the “suits”? These are some of the other people he's interested in within his works, those people who took that other path he mostly rejected, the careerist. From what I took from both of his comedies he both admires and loathes them.
He saves some special hatred for corporate suits, but if the suit fits... ”Admires”? Yes, Zukovic admires them, though he sports a cravat more often than a conventional tie so the blood-flow to his brain is intact.
"Admires?" Yes, I wrote admire, so shut the fuck up already. First: he admires them for their nihilist discipline and even some of their accomplishments, but he also fears and hates them since they're probably some of the very same people he has to deal with in order to get a film financed and distributed, and his films are extremely low-budget as it is, he has to go begging for money. The fear is always going to be there that you're dealing with a flaky, ineffectual desk-bound asswipe with an ego (and bank account) big enough to poison your vision and kill the movie with the swipe of a pen, potentially ruining years of work and preparation. In other words, an executive producer—or worse—some asshole that they sent to represent their interests, a shill, a glorified gofer with an MBA and no imagination.
If your luck's really bad the shill will also secretly hate creative people, not simply the director, but anyone with a creative bone in their body working on the production and go after them.
There are other problems: you still need a competent and motivated crew--however small--and that's even before the costs of post-production editing and dubbing, the finishing of a movie, and promotion. This is the curse and the bane of all artists who have to work in expensive mediums like film, a century-old battle between art and commerce. I believe Zukovic keeps things small so that his chances of ever brushing-up against redundant bureaucratic asswipes is going to be a statistical error. I'd imagine that he witnessed his share of these kinds turds and their malignant influence working on the "X-Files" and its spin-off, "Millennium," as well as in his walk-on parts in other Hollywood fare. That's probably some of the key to his self-accusations, that he felt he'd sold-out at some point as an artist and was making-amends for being a hypocrite and a pretentious ass in public to average, naïve people who sincerely just wanted to have fun when they all collided some two decades ago.
Yes, it was artistic “frisson” at play to screw with ordinary people, and yes, he's clearly learned from his mistakes. That still doesn't stop him from pointing the finger at his audience and needling them, which he does expertly. His movies, then, can be seen as a form of penance and Zukovic should himself be admired for it. This is something that takes incredible courage--to put yourself out there like that. ridiculing oneself. The “war”--if there is one between the writer/director and the money people—often seeps into the narrative of his stories, and that's where some of the self-accusation comes into play. Many motion pictures, and even plays, have this “hidden” subtext in them (like later Peckinpah), but Dan just lets it all hang out, all over the place, so it's not so hard to understand why it takes a special group of backers to be attracted to his work. Like the suits, nothing stops this guy from doing his thing.
They say that the tough get tougher and the weird just get weirder, but who wants to hire a Private Detective just to experience someone's art? In the modern world, the weird is becoming commonplace and it's not necessarily entertaining, though art and entertainment are two different things. What's left when everything is the same urban sprawl? Don't people start to hallucinate in solitary confinement after awhile? Yes. The mind is eventually going to wander, create, and entertain itself when everything becomes the same empty routine. But when is something adapting to life through humor and when is it someone going nuts? When is it all of the above? Raging against an ocean of indifference and a vast cultural wasteland that was always there in some form or another has an implicit comic humor to it, but also all of the elements of profound tragedy.
Zukovic is so divinely twisted that he's capable of finding humor in a yawning spiritual abyss, an impressive feat for any artist. I've known about Dark Arc for over five years wondering how I was going to be able to see it outside of some stodgy, remote film festival. There's some implied strategy here, like that of his protagonists. Leave them wanting more, and so he does, a good rule of thumb for anyone wanting to make an impact and to preserve the power of their images.
Even being able to find a trailer or a clip of the The Last Big Thing online--until very recently--has been practically impossible and any biographical information on its author is scant at best. Does this guy ever do interviews? I'd imagine promotional appearances are a rarity for Zukovic and I can't blame him. The availability of his films still begs the question: “Does he attempt to promote his films at all?” Yes, apparently so, since they've made the rounds of various international film festivals without much luck in getting the attention and the interest of distributors--or at least ones who were willing to cut him and his investors a square deal (for readers who don't understand traditional movie distribution, just recall all the horror stories from the music industry and it should make sense).
Zukovic doesn't seem to be interested in some kind of hollow fame or anything beyond his ability to keep producing plays and his quirky comedies, which is enough effort in itself.
What's most interesting is that he's had more luck finding American investors for his low-budget comedies than native Canadian ones, but that's also a matter of the Great White North's legendary tax credit laws and his projects come cheap to foreign backers. Americans always love a deal. Being a fan of this guy's work is a daunting task, but I think like all great finds, the hunting was worth the effort. No matter: The Last Big Thing was picked up for cable in the late 1990s. It's been shown at film festivals and on IFC and Cinemax over the years and received the inevitable bootlegging treatment—my own copy was taped off of broadcast TV over a decade ago.
Cultural obsessives of the obscure will be happy to know that a DVD of it is slated for release for sometime in 2011, just shy of twenty years after its obscure initial release. Does the mainstream media shun this guy? Does he shun them? Both? It's a hard call in an era that demands answers to everything, and be fast about it, will ya? Zukovic's having none of that and I'd wager that had he wanted stardom he would've achieved it around the same time that Ruffalo did, within the last fifteen years. Did he ever want that fame? I believe he did, but rejected it and its trappings.
He's a strange bird--to put it mildly--and he has a screen presence that's unforgettable, looking like an emaciated John Saxon-on-Sartre with an obsession for high culture street fighting. There must have been some intellectual crisis for Zukovic by the mid-1990s since high culture and its failings was the main theme of his first film. Logically, he's also obsessed with criticizing cultural snobbery, namely his own, and opening oneself up like this can only be art; the humor of it all is obvious without being preachy. Like all of the greats of comedy, he understands comic timing and rarely ever misses a beat. To make great comedy takes incredible effort in such jaded and cynical times, but he manages to pierce the layers of defense in a way that's timeless, a rare gift in a world that doesn't care that it doesn't care.
The key to some humor is in being annoying which Zukovic excels at, right down to his hilarious fuzz-guitar stings which always come at the right emotional moment. To be sure, he's a good example of a Renaissance man working on several levels at once. You could literally ignore the high culture jargon in his two films and have no difficulty understanding what he's saying about the characters--just listen to and observe the comic interactions between them and it all makes natural comedic sense. There's also a great love/hate/ambivalence for the everyman at play, the “average fuck,” the “basic fucker,” in the Zukovic universe, a love of people who are simply unassuming and sincere in their basic ignorance. If you've ever been in a scene or an artistic milieu, these gasps for “normal” air can be refreshing.
There's a point where you have to admit to yourself that you wouldn't want to be, for example, in the same room as Picasso or Rimbaud, and certainly not with Jackson Pollock on a drunken tear. This love of ordinary people is something to be treasured and the director's finest moments are when his snobbish stand-ins for himself are confronted with their jaded assholism by people who aren't nearly as stupid and ignorant as they assumed. Too often, the life of the self-described Bohemian has been a refuge for emotional retards too afraid to embrace people and life, running to elitism, a manufactured classism that obscures their lowly-roots and what most of them really are: cowards.
Zukovic is no coward. Both of his films have some magic turning-points where these confrontations with "normals" happen, though I'm not going to give those moments away to the reader, they'll know them when they see them. The truth is, if we don't change and grow in this life, we ultimately die.
With its obvious use of theme-named characters Dark Arc could be a satirical story by Terry Southern. Zukovic casts himself once again as the protagonist of the tale, a Viscount Laris, a walking cultural anachronism out of Cervante's Don Quixote searching for...searching for what? Does he even know? Laris is the quintessential wannabe artiste since they have such an ill-defined place in a modern technological world, an almost soulless human society that has no appreciation of the divine, of the symbols or of art itself, only viewing it as a commodity to be sold. It's a world that devours meaning and that's ultimately what the characters of Zukovic's stories so desperately want in their colorless lives; their feeble attempts at finding that meaning is often their first mistake since they should stick with making it honestly and for the right reasons. Instead, most of them use it as an indirect form of communication that's bound to fail.
This is a lot like the dialogue of the equally damaged characters in Steven Soderbergh's very personal Schizopolis (1996) which not-so-ironically contained actual sentences taken directly from the incomprehensible notes of movie producers to the director from his early days navigating the completely batshit Hollywood system. Do they ever connect with each other? In Zukovic's universe, they do, and the writer/director offers a sense of redemption for his tortured creatures, albeit an utterly bizarre one in the case of Dark Arc. Zukovic offers us a very peculiar love triangle, because...well, just because, folks. Boy-meet-girl still packs-'em-in.
Without giving too much away, Laris takes his recently acquired aristocratic title to its logical conclusion in a way that would do Aaron Burr proud. Laris is looking for love, yes, but also the ultimate experience in a mind-deadening present, that great image he's been looking to recapture from his childhood, an ineffable archetype to heal something that's missing, something that's broken inside. Serendipity brings Lamia his way, but is it a good thing? It's tragicomic, but Zukovic is being very serious while at the same time prodding us into laughter; oftentimes, he makes both possible, as though he were some Peckinpah of art house cinema, making us confront ourselves for a laughter that he's coaxed us into, a mercurial touch. What's funniest is when his well drawn characters have their social masks fall--or are ripped-off violently--and the gloves are truly off.
Once the quasi-aristocratic facade slips, the North American working-class origins start coming out in full-bloom like a drunken sailor out on a mission for a prime piece of ass, and expressed in roughly the same terms.
Laris meets “Juxta/Lamia” (a role which is nailed to the floor by Sarah Strange who also appeared on the X-Files), his muse, a woman straight out of an image he first encountered in his childhood: a vintage photograph of a woman lying on a couch in a Berlin opium den, circa 1923. That's pretty specific, isn't it? The dryness of it all reminds me of the best of Bunuel, that sardonic laugh at the absurdity of the human condition and all of the pointless machinations people descend to on the Pilgrim's road to getting laid. To make things more absurd, Zukovic throws in a geeky, aged graphic designer (played subtly by Kurt Max Runte) with a dead-end life who suddenly comes to the attentions of Laris and Juxta. Laris has it in mind to cultivate the “basic fuck” through repeated exposure to “charged imagery,” frequently in the form of his muse, festooned as a “slash of pink.”
The sexual tension is everywhere in the storyline to the point that I felt compelled at one point to utter aloud, “For fuck's sake, just tell him to fuck you, goddamn it.” I was watching it alone, at home on my laptop. That's good filmmaking and a natural storytelling ability.
Dark Arc's obsessions are similar to the Last Big Thing's, but where writer/director Zukovic and company diverge is the greater focus--and I mean this literally--on imagery and the power of the image on people, so it has a greater visual beauty than his first feature. Intriguingly, there's an examination of both the male and female gaze, a visual-pun that the director handles well, if darkly. For fans of his first film, yes, Edvard Munch's “The Scream” makes a comic return more than once. The beauty of all this is that you don't have to know about the great artistic, intellectual and literary movements of the last two hundred years to get the humor of this very dry film. For all of its high flown language and imagery, the focus is still on what it always has to be in drama: people and their problems.
These are extremely weird ones, mind you, but people all the same. Suffice it to say that Zukovic is most obsessed with people who are unable to relate to or to communicate with each other conventionally anymore, which is the great tragedy of our time. These are people who are--to put it politely--profoundly neurotic, dysfunctional, and terminally middle-class. There's always a deep sadness about our eternal consumerist present underpinning all of this—that over-thought and desaturated bleakness of modern life, the unfulfilled promises of rock, religion, politics, art, philosophy and literature. The hipster sense of elitist solitude that was always a part of North America's counterculture is his clay to fashion as he will and damned if he isn't angry about it, and at himself, for once being that snobby social creature.
There's a lot to be angry about when unfulfilled promise is the rule of the day. This sense of an end of culture is echoed in the brilliant comebacks Zukovic nails a vapid scenester with in the third act of the story; it's a brilliant compression of the life-cycle of a hipster scene, going from superficial fun that in-turn almost as rapidly disintegrates into conformism and paranoid cliquishness, alienation and acrimony. You have to hand it to an artist who's accusing himself for laughs while kicking his own milieu squarely up the ass.
When everyone's a hipster and in on the joke, the ultimate irony of this era, what's left? A film like this is a rare event indeed, even in an age when most are going to view it for the first time on their laptops or in the privacy of their own homes. What's left after every conceivable form of cultural rebellion has been assimilated and drained of its power and purpose (originally intended to subvert a death loving dominant culture)? What's left? The individual. That's who made Dark Arc, for the rest of us sitting out there in the darkness, often alone, in a room full of people.