|THE IMMACULATE CONCEPTION OF LITTLE DIZZLE
*** (out of four)
|starring Marshall Allman, Vince Vieluf, Natasha Lyonne, Tygh Runyan
written and directed by David Russo
The scion of a constipated generation, Seattle tech worker Dory (Marshall Allman) is sampling religions like grab-bag candy when a sealed bottle floats past during his lunch-hour Bible study. The message within could be either from God or from the famously polluted Puget Sound itself, but it sets Dory on a career-destroying spiral that ends with a new job on an office cleaning crew, scrubbing johns alongside renegade "artist" OC (Vince Vieluf). One of their clients is product lab Corsica Research, where a young exec (Natasha Lyonne, long missed but giving the least authentic performance here) decides the trash-scavenging janitors are perfect test subjects for an awful but addictive new cookie. The active ingredient impregnates men first with an altered consciousness (whole concepts break loose from language and float free in the air, in electrically beautiful F/X sequences), and finally with what can only be described as an incandescent blue lungfish. But it's not so much an Alien-esque affliction as an epiphany, with each man finding peace and even enlightenment in this scatological process of "childbirth." No longer adrift, they're vessels for a new life--the only kind that can survive, it's implied, in a world where Zoloft flows from the kitchen tap and breakfast just isn't a meal without Yellow Dye No. 5. Allman and Vieluf play perfectly off each other under Seattle writer-director David Russo, whose jitter-editing and hallucination segments recall Darren Aronofsky and whose screenplay references Philip K. Dick. Russo's deployment of soundtrack music skillfully twists the knife where it counts--witness the lo-fi but enchanting version of the Carpenters' "Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft" (by The Langley Schools Music Project, fascinating in itself) that closes the film, as Dory deposits a new message in the water and contemplates, as all new fathers must, a future for his children.-JR
April 21, 2010|The films of David Russo have a distinctly handmade feel, and often the hand becomes visible. A largely self-taught filmmaker and animator, he makes no pretense that he's not manipulating the action. When he sets his models into neon time-lapse against backdrops that strobe from sky to sea to blackness, he almost always winds up in the shot. In Russo's short creations and in his first feature film, The Immaculate Conception of Little Dizzle, bespoke art objects--or even just words--make long, looping journeys in search of some answer. But like most philosophical quests, the journey is more important than its endpoint.
While he developed his craft Russo carried on an eleven-year career as a janitor, a vocation that sharpened his sense of the things society values: what we keep, what we cast away, what we flush. His short art films Populi (2002) and Pan With Us (2003) (viewable here, along with most of the artist's other work) gave him his first wider exposure, competing at the Sundance Film Festival in consecutive years. More recently, his hand-wrought animation lent texture to the video for Thom Yorke's "Harrowdown Hill" (2006).
Dizzle's path from script to screen was fraught with financing issues and a slender production window. It wasn't bought for distribution after its Sundance debut in early 2009, and by the time it reached Russo's hometown Seattle International Film Festival the same year, its hopes for release were no better. Finally, Robert De Niro's Tribeca Film picked up Dizzle for a brief 2010 New York theatrical engagement and a video-on-demand run that starts today. Russo's renegade janitors, chemically enlightened and midwifing the birth of a new species, might manage to swim free of the sewers after all.
I interviewed Russo by phone during SIFF 2009, since our schedules didn't synch up for a face-to-face meeting. By then, he'd all but given up on finding a way to push Dizzle into theatres. "It's an art film that's religious, that has buttfish, and it's for intellectuals," he told me. "How do you pull a marketing lever that brings those people into a theatre? It doesn't exist." He'd already moved on to his next project, Blue Man Group: Mind Blast, in which the famous performance-art combo explores the inner spaces of human neurochemistry in IMAX 3D. Russo was signed to direct--and in the year before Avatar, the landscape he was conceptualizing seemed unfilmable.
On a side note, Russo assured me it was purest coincidence that Dizzle's main character, Dory, shares a name with the blue fish in Finding Nemo (while giving birth to a blue fish of his own)--the script for the film was done before Nemo premiered.
FILM FREAK CENTRAL: What was your first experience with making films?
DAVID RUSSO: Making films is how I came back from being a dropout. I had a really tough time staying in school. I dropped out in eighth grade and I dropped out again in tenth grade. And it got pretty bad--I mean, there was no way I could graduate. But there was a mentor-teacher of mine, the only guy I connected with in my whole public-education experience. His name was Mike Lyons. He was an old hippie filmmaker from the '60s, who made films in the Haight-Ashbury. He had an old Bolex. So he just invented these classes for me. It would be the only classes I would take the whole day. I would show up at school, and the first semester it would be like Filmmaking 1. And the next semester it would be Filmmaking 2. And the next semester it would be Filmmaking 3. And then he would have me go film all the sports events for huge amounts of credits. So basically, half of my accumulated credit toward graduating high school was just making films and working with his camera to shoot school stuff. So those were my first films, and they're pretty crazy. I can show them to people now, and they won't believe the era they came out of, and that you could do that with a VHS camera.
I think a lot of kids relate to the moving image more than any other kind of art. It seems easier to make a movie sometimes than it does to paint a still life.
Yeah, I think growing up in a media culture, that's not too surprising. It's not just kids either. I'm definitely a media child. I was raised on "Brady Bunch" reruns, "Gilligan's Island" reruns, "Leave It To Beaver" reruns. It's a part of who I am. So yeah, our relationship to the screen seems so automatic, so much part of ourselves. In my films, I try to give people a lot to look at and a lot to see and a lot to experience. That's the way we're wired. What I'm not down with, though--it's not like I'm philosophically against it, but it doesn't jive with me--I'm not down with DVDs and iPod releases and all that. I know it's the future, I know pay-per-view is where we're going with everything. Even going to the movies is gonna be like a pay-per-view thing. But darnit, I do believe in the movie experience. I do believe in going to the theatre and having the whole experience of film, sound, vision, the collective audience there in the dark. I believe in that, and it's no accident that my next film is this 3D IMAX feature, because they are as insane about fidelity as I am. This isn't that Lie-Max, either. This is the real deal: 15 perf, 70mm, honking total throwback to fidelity. I'm coming in at just the tail end of that period where going to the movies was supposed to be an experience, but I plan to do something quite unusual with it.
Little Dizzle, with the various vision sequences, must have had bigger technical aspects than you'd probably worked with before--
No, no, not at all. That was all the stuff that I do with my short films. That's the voice I had developed over the course of the twenty years I've been making films. That stuff was all secondhand to me. That was all the easy stuff. The hard part was the live action. The hard part was getting a process for that, and having to be rushed the way we were rushed, with only three weeks before production. There was no time to put anything together the way I was used to. There was no time to take my time, there was no time to design and really think and meditate. It was just like, "Green light, you're shooting in three weeks, your director of photography dropped out, go! Oh yeah, and half the actors you wanted aren't available. Bye!" Having to commit to the imperfect was the hardest part. Special effects were all totally easy. I mean, that's not rocket science. Greenscreen is about as bonehead a technology as there is. It's simple compared to what I do.
So something like the Blue Man Group project is something that will be different in scope but not in terms of effort, I guess.
Oh, the Blue Man Group is gonna be a whole lot of effort. Are you kidding? It's colossal, and at present, it's impossible to make. So that's the whole journey that I'm on right now--trying to craft this wild idea of theirs, and one of the great, great subjects for 3D IMAX that's ever existed, which is the brain and advances in neuroscience and neuropsychology and neurology, that are really unlocking a lot of secrets. The most exciting part of science right now is what we're learning about how the brain actually functions. Myths are just falling by the wayside right now. So it's cool to have this medium where we can deal with the science, but with the Blue Men--because they're artists, first and foremost, with colossal standards--they want this subjective world to be rendered in highly creative ways. And it isn't their medium, so they looked for a long time to find somebody they trusted who could take it and make a real vision about it. So they don't want me to change anything about myself. They just want me to participate in this whole spiritual, creative quest that they're on. And it should be super interesting. I mean, every day brings new revelations, and the amount I'm learning is incredible. I think I've been fighting two dimensions my entire life. I think 3-D is definitely a good format for what I try to do with my visual style.
It's interesting that IMAX 3D comes along when the theatre experience seems threatened by home technology, in the same way that 3-D first came on the scene in the '50s when films were threatened by TV.
Yep, it's that same thing. And I have no illusions. I do know that the theatre experience is destined to die. The indie sphere were the first ones to just throw in the towel, and say, "It's only about story, it's not about sound and vision." So they'll distribute things that are basically videos and try to get people to pay money in the theatre for them. And hence, they're all losing money hand over fucking fist. They forgot. So they're gonna have to move to pay-per-view or just DVD release. It's dying. And Hollywood is on a dangerous path. So we'll see. We'll see how it all works out. But sometimes this new technology just threatens the hell out of old technology, and back when TV became big, they reacted with Cinerama. Now that iPod distribution is gonna be a serious economic factor, I don't know what you do with a movie theatre--other than hologram or three dimensions, something that that little two-inch-by-two-inch screen can't do.
I read an article in Slashfilm announcing the Blue Man project, in which you described the movie as being about "the Blue Men entering the brain of a socially and creatively congested person." That, to me, dovetailed with what I thought I had observed in Dizzle.
Sure, sure. There's a definite similarity there, and I'm sure that it wasn't lost on the Blue Men when they saw Little Dizzle. They wanted it to be about a character like that, a person who's just not paying attention. The Blue Man thing is different. The Blue Men are all about follow your bliss. We differ in this regard, and this is not to put them down--but we differ in this regard that everyone should just follow their own impulses and create, that if you're not following your own impulses and creating, somehow you're not living to your full potential. That's a neat idea, and I can completely pay my respects to that idea, but I do think that life is a little more complex. So my lead character is spiritually congested, but he's not creatively congested. Some people just aren't born to be creative. It's not a bad thing--we all have different strengths. I don't want the guy who is balancing my tires to be necessarily the most creative individual. I was a janitor for eleven years. There was plenty of time to be creative, but also, you gotta serve humanity in some way, and not everyone's cut out for show business, and not everyone's cut out for art, and it certainly isn't a failure for any individual if they don't have a career in that kind of stuff. It's just one more way of getting a paycheck.
My feeling about your characters in Little Dizzle is they are running up against artistic blocks, or having a hard time integrating themselves. Then they have this experience that sort of liberates them from that. Does that go along with what your conception of the film was?
Probably not. I think certainly the experience changes them, and I liked your word--it integrates them more fully and wholly. But creative constipation... OC certainly doesn't suffer from that, and he's the artist in the film. I don't think Dory has a creative bone in his body, really, in terms of wanting to express his creativity. But who am I to say what's right and what isn't about the film? There's a lot of themes floatin' around, and Dory's constipation, his congestion, has far more to do with his spiritual problems and this sort of religious grasping that he does.
Yeah, he spends a lot of time trying on different hats and T-shirts.
A lot of different T-shirts, trying on the very surface of his conceptions of what the various religions might be. He doesn't even do the religions any justice. He just tries them on like a garment.
There's a songwriter that I like, Dan Bern, and he had a lyric that went, "So often these days, eating Indian food passes for spirituality."
No shit. I get that. I think that's exactly right. And in America, God love us and God bless us, we are... I guess you could call us spiritual novices, really. And that's really good, and it's also really bad. Most cultures around the world, they have thousands of years of some sort of religious history. If America was to claim something like that, they'd have to go Native American on it. But we're kind of a little arrogant, upstart nation that also can change religions, that can also take up different belief systems on the most superficial level, and really create cultural and political messes by virtue of their misunderstandings of various other belief systems. So yeah, eating Indian food, that just about does it. Rent a videotape on how to meditate or do yoga, and there's your spiritual cup of coffee for the day. For a lot of the world, it's just not that simple.
Little Dizzle also seems to imply the potential, or at least a wish, for something that is vital and living to come out of a toxic environment.
Of course, of course. It's the only way I can even feign optimism. It is a fact, that we forget about, that not all unintended consequences have to be horrible. And this generation that's coming into their own, as I'm talking to you, they are at the dawn of...if I could term this new era that we're coming into, it is the Age of Unintended Consequences. Centuries and centuries of cultural momentum, economic momentum, political momentum that created a whole lot of problems. And there's just been enough resources in the world, in our particular culture, that we haven't had to deal with any ramifications, until now. So yeah, I think that's a very fine observation.
In your work, there is a refrain where concepts sort of lift themselves out of whatever context they're encountered in, and roam free around the landscape.
Yeah, there's so many motifs that just kind of float around in the film, and sometimes it's real literal--they just lift right off, and before you know it, we're just sort of going into a fish place. Why? Just because--there's a fish coming, let's have a premonition. Let's appreciate fish for a second, or something. I dunno, I'm being real wordy about it, but I'm thinking of the fish sequence when you said that--Dory's in a bar, and he has a vision. He has a vision of this fish painting. It is, in fact, a premonition. It is a blue fish that just starts to dislodge itself and roam around. In the context of the story, it has certain meaning, but it's also just a very simple homage to bar art, which I've always enjoyed. There's nothing like a bar art experience, and they don't come frequently, but occasionally, you might have like a beer or two in a bar, and some tacky little advertisement or some tacky piece of art that they have put up there just takes on a dimension and a depth that you could never approach in a museum environment. It kind of makes me wish that we could put real Van Goghs in a bar, or something. It would just be such a splendid pleasure.
So lots of people have visions, and maybe that's where earlier you had spoken about these creatively congested people, and the thing is, we're all creative. We are all artists. Just dealing with existence, the brain creates so much. It is creating and making sense of all kinds of stuff, and it has visions. Everybody has visions. The only difference between people who have visions and those people we call artists or mystics or shamans, is that artists try to perpetrate their visions in a way that other people can share their visions. I think somebody noted, like, Why does Dory have a vision, when OC is the artist? It's like, no, no, no, when it comes to the mind, it's just not that simple. Artists pay attention to their visions, they respect visions more, but they're not different than any other human being. You can be changing tires and just have a very vivid imagination that's doing cartwheels before you, and you just don't notice it.
And where Dory is the one who is suffering from this vision--he has to leave the bar and apologize as he goes--it's that apology that OC takes as his new art project.
Exactly. One guy's mere utterance all of a sudden takes on a profound meaning to somebody who's more receptive, whose mind is kind of looking for significance. Whereas Dory just had a whopping great fish vision, because of the chemicals being released into his intestines, OC has one and decides to create an entire city-scale art piece out of it. That's the difference between an artist and someone who isn't. The one who isn't just has the vision and moves on with their day, and the other one goes, Wow, I wanna spend the next two weeks on this.
OC's project reminds me of a story from Seattle about someone who paid the homeless to hold up advertising.
Yeah, well, that certainly wouldn't surprise me. I don't know if that's a Seattle invention or not, but it seems to make perfect sense. I know I've seen my share of the downtrodden holding up mattress store signage.
It was referred to at the time as "bumvertising."
Yeah, I think so. Advertisers are a tricky lot. Again, marketing--marketing's another theme in the film. We're always out to exploit one another. In Dory's big fat rant at the tend of the film--to me, the big climax of the film is his rant to the city and himself and to no one in particular, which is a great portrait of who I was at the time when I was a janitor--just ranting to nobody. And he says a lot of things--some of the things he says are really petty, but some of the things he says are deep. One of the things that he says that I think goes right by is, "Semi-aggregate intestinal fauna--is this what God made us for? To find newer and more creative ways to exploit one another?" Really, I'm not a deeply religious person, but when I look around at this godlike economy thing that has sort of grown around America--we aren't a country anymore, we're an economy. And what's our economy based on? Capitalizing on each other and exploiting one another. And how on earth can that work? I wrote the script back in 2003, just a couple of months before the second Iraq War, and it was just insane. The corporatism was so unbridled at that time, and any fool knows--and I put it to use--any fool knows that that kind of mentality will not hold. So far from being surprised by the economic downturn that's occurred in the rest of America, I've never been doing better. My wife and I just didn't drink that Kool-Aid. We continued to save our money, save our money, save our money, and not spend, not spend, not spend, and it really, really benefited us.
Tell me about the ambition you had for the sound design.
I'm psycho about this stuff, as I think I've given you some indication of. I am psycho about sound. Sound, for me, is half of what going to a movie is. It is literally one-half. All that work I do with actors, all that work I do with special effects, all that work I do with editing, that's half of the movie. The other half is what's coming through your ears. So we mixed this thing in Dolby Digital Surround, and I have a genius level sound designer[, Tom Hambleton]. If there's one thing about this movie that I think approaches perfection, it's how it sounds. The music that I choose, the sound design that he creates and the composers that I hired[, the Seattle collective Awesome], to really give the movie lots of different movements and lots of different feelings, and not just be a one-note style.
In certain cases the characters are hearing the whole world, and in other cases, they're just hearing their own bowels.
Yeah. I mean, I hear at the press screening, a lot of that, the masterfulness of the sound, was lost. But yeah, there's no one throughline of music, and I pulled together a whole soundtrack of music and I put my composers to work to never duplicate themselves, so that one minute you might be hearing a Krishna chant that is so from the soul, and the next minute you might hear a group of children singing, and earlier in the film you'll hear Tiny Tim singing Christmas carols for the Fourth of July. But it all kind of makes sense to me. It's like, Oh, we have a car chase, and what do we want for a car chase? My composer gave me a whole CD of stuff, and there's a little banjo riff on there that's just very cute, very un-car chase. And I went, Oh, there's our car chase music--a single banjo, plunking away casually. I put a lot of work into the sound, to hopefully make it an adventure. It's part of the experience.
The Langley Schools Music Project for the close was, I thought, a pretty inspired choice.
Yeah. A lot of people are aware of the Langley School project, and for the ending music, my editor had just asked me to give him a CD of five songs that make me cry, just to kind of get what my soul was in that whole post-rant kind of feeling. That particular track, that Klaatu song that the Carpenters made popular in the '70s, "Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft," for some reason just strikes me as one of the most hopeful, beautiful things I have ever heard. It just couldn't be more sincere and wonderful--these kids chanting, "We are your friends, we are your friends, we are your friends." It's just unbelievable. So I was glad that I was able to give it a home. We had a very small budget for music, but it was just big enough that we could afford really quirky stuff that no one else was seeking out. So we were always the ones who were going, "We would like this Krishna track for this independent film," and we would be the first person that had ever gotten it. Same thing with Langley School. Somehow, one of the best CDs, I think, of the decade--other independent films just overlooked it, because of fidelity issues, because it's recorded with one microphone and it's mono and it's real scratchy. But I just adore it. It all comes through.
I was looking at [2006's] I Am (Not) Van Gogh--here's something you did that acts not only as art, but it also satirizes attempts to talk about art.
Yeah, definitely. That's the period I was at when I made that. I was wondering, what is this thing I've been doing my whole life, and what has it become. So I knew I didn't want to make quote-unquote "art films" anymore. Yet I had all of this support and all these organizations that wanted me to make something. And I told them, "I don't really have any ideas, but if you're gonna give me the money, I'll do my best." So I made I Am (Not) Van Gogh. All of my short films are completely honest, and that one is honest to a point where even I can't believe I was able to achieve it.
There's the defense of art that you have to mount, there's the intellectual justification, and there's the please-give-me-money factor.
There's the please-give-me-money, but at what cost? I think one of the lines in that, it was certainly true, and completely honest--I said something like, "Running around with manic passion and mental problems, trying to find salvation in art, beauty and films... My life has just dwindled into trying to please arts panels." And that's when the whole thing kinda comes to a grinding halt for a second. I think I literally threw my camera, my 45-pound Mitchell, off a 150-foot bridge into a small stream. And it lived! I built a huge contraption so that hopefully the camera would continue rolling after it landed. And that was sort of my catharsis. I think I made every short art film I ever wanted to make. I don't want to be one of these artists that just continues because they can, or continues because they know how to say the right things to an arts panel. I fucking hate that, I hate it with a passion. It's just that film is so expensive, you spend a lot of your time trying to sell things. It's not like painting--when you're a filmmaker, you can't just pull out a canvas and go, Y'know what? I feel like painting today. It doesn't work that way. Video is a different story, but man, film is hard, and it's prohibitive, and kind of magic in that way. So yeah, that was me saying goodbye. I wanted to piss 'em off so hard that I would never be tempted to come back for money. And it worked. I'm out of that pathway. I would rather do something else with my life than become that kind of filmmaker.
What about narrative film, then?
Ehhh, I'm kind of done with that for now. I can't say never again, but I feel like... Well, the Blue Man thing is a nice way, cause it's got a little bit of a narrative string in it, but it really is about a holistic experience that involves music and sound and art and vision, and there's a narrative in it. There are producers right now who are trying, trying to get me to say I just wanna do one thing. Because even though with The Immaculate Conception of Little Dizzle, even though the indie sphere has kind of decided that it's unmarketable, that it is a risky financial proposition to try and distribute this, particularly in America-- the accomplishment of the movie is not lost on the industry professionals in Hollywood. And that's sort of the freaky thing that I never thought would happen. I thought I was done with film, but people who know people see Dizzle at Sundance or whatever, and they talk, and now we're holding another screening for the head of another major distribution company. And they're gonna be watching Little Dizzle, not to distribute it, but to decide if, y'know, is this guy the moviemaker we hear he is? So I think, if I don't fuck up the Blue Man Group, I'll have a lot of offers. I'll have some things presented to me that I would never say never to. But narrative, I think I'm glad to be done with it for a while. It is very restrictive, and people are so used to narrative patterns that if you try to fuck with 'em just a little bit, they don't like it. It's unsettling. Just trying to get Dizzle made was an unbelievable experience. It was very hard, because all the script doctors say, "You have to explain why he's a spiritual seeker. If you don't, it's a bad script. Why does there have to be buttfish? Take out the buttfish, and you have a movie! You have a guy finding himself through janitorial labour!" And my argument to them was, "My only reason for being is to challenge audiences. That's my only reason to live, is to not do what everyone else is doing. And if you want to explain a spiritual matter that's unexplainable, you got the wrong guy. This is not the movie for you." Our producers got so desperate to try to get the movie made, they actually brought in other writers to take a stab at trying to explain the spiritual element. And they would lock up--none of them could deliver. When you try to explain spiritual hunger and make it logical, you're lying. I'm not gonna lie. There's just some people that are spiritual seekers, and I don't know why they are. But I was one--I think I still am one. Let's just leave it at that. Let 'em try on different religions and let's not explain it. Let's just let the audience have to accept it.
So that's the problem with narrative. You gotta be a genre, and that's another thing I'm not interested in being. I don't like the same patterns. I get bored in movies lately. Once the third act comes, I'm usually about ready to walk out of the theatre, because I see it all clicking together, I know where we have to go, I know where the climax is. I fought against that with Dizzle. I was like, Fuck it, you want a climax where the little guy gets back at the big people? How about this: he apologizes to them and walks away. He forgives them for their happiness and wealth and passes them by. That is unAmerican. That is a new kind of way to tell a story. But we're addicted to genre. We want to see the little guy win.