Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Being of Unsound Mind

I tend towards obsessive behaviors. Get a bug up my butt about something, and I'm a gone Daddy-rabbit. One of my recent obsessions? Brentwood Video. You've seen this stuff in your favorite place to buy DVDs. You know, the mega-compilations of mostly horror movies going for bargain-basement prices? Well, I've started buying these silly things any time I find them. Why? Mostly, it's my Wal-Mart mentality -- Cheap is good. Not "quality", but like most guys are by breasts, I'm a quantity over quality guy when it comes to movies.

So I snag this collection called "A Night To Dismember". Ah, the wit! But 12 movies for 17 bucks? Sure, I can be had, especially when one of those movies is "Bloodletting," a classic indie made a number of years back. So I get the thing home and decide to start from the beginning. "Insaniac" was the title of the first film. I rolled my eyes, and prepared to be cheesed to death.

The sound, well, sucked, which doesn't work well for me. See, I watch these things late night when my girlfriend, who has enough sense to avoid most of these movies, is conked out on the couch. If you turn up most of these "made-on-video" flicks to a volume that enables understandable dialogue, then the music or sound effects will cause the dog down the street to convulse and bite small children. But I stick with it, right through the barest story setup, and I'm wondering when the movie is going to take off.

Next thing I know, the film has slipped into this slightly Goth chick's mental Circles of Hell as she tries to come to terms with her past and what happened that apparently landed her in a psych ward. Rough made? Yes. Polished in every area? Ha ha -- no. Yet, even with half of the dialogue unintelligible, I was stunned and pleased that someone out there tried to do something different. The main character grows on you as you realize she is either very screwed up or very heavily drugged. Just so wonderful to see something other than the usual "let's copy anything that will allow spraying blood" mentality.

Still enamored of the film, I went to imdb.com to check out the filmmakers. I discovered the lead actress did work behind the camera as well. So I used those all-important cyber stalker skills and tracked her down. Ain't the Internet the greatest thing? Yup, that's her. Please meet Robin Garrels. She wrote "Insaniac". She starred in it. However, in spite of, or because of, her direct involvement, she seems to have her own reservations about the film. In one of my first emails from her, she thanked me for sitting through "Insaniac" and "Last House On Hell Street", another film she wrote as well as doing a small role. Odd behavior. Well, I can somewhat understand in relation to "Last House On Hell Street", which apparently was trimmed down to a short film later and will be added as an extra on another of Robin's films, "Buzz Saw". "Yeah, Last House was a nice experiment, and actually, it's an extra feature on the Buzz Saw DVD, it's edited down to a 17-minute short, which I think is MUCH better," she told me.

But what do we really know about Robin Garrels? Not much. She lives in Missouri. She seems to be in her twenties. She was, at the time I exchanged emails with her, running in 18 different directions with twice as many projects -- a play/film called "Fourth Dimension" with 8 handheld cameras filming and choreographed in sync with the actors, helping a friend with a film he was trying to wrap up, holding down an office-type job, writing another script and mainlining pure sugar and high-octane java. The woman should be ashamed of having so much energy.

Influences? The theater. "I played a prostitute in Madwoman of Chaillot in high school (a walk-on part) because I had a crush on one of the boys in the play. The next year I got the lead in Skin of Our Teeth. Senior year I wrote this HORRIBLE play that the school kindly put on, and I realized that this was in fact what I wanted to do...write scripts...so I majored in Lit in College, got a writing internship in L.A. at a theatre company my senior year, then came back to St. Louis, Missouri and started the 'shoestring' theatre company The Tin Ceiling, with some friends."

She takes her theater background with her when she writes and when she watches other people's work. "I love me some over-the-top pretentiousness. I don't know why, but I've always found theatrical films and t.v. to be so funny! Maybe not intentionally so...but there's this weird undercurrent when someone seems to be taking themselves too seriously that I just LOVE, and find HILARIOUS. I think David Lynch (my Yoda) does this extremely well...using...or rather, requiring over-the-top performances in certain situations to create a sort of (should I laugh?) state of mind."

What label can we throw at Robin Garrels to define her? Actor? Writer? Director? Being a member of the low-to-no-budget school of filmmaking, she clearly does all of them, but how does she see herself? "I have to say, that as far as an expression to product ratio is concerned, with WRITING, I feel like I've got about a 95%. In other words, I feel that on paper, I'm saying almost exactly what I want to say, in the way I want to say it." Robin feels less confident when it comes to directing her own material. "...I can't get outside of it enough. So that's what I'm working on." By her own admission, collaboration is more her thing at this point in her film career. She has co-written and co-directed "Buzz Saw" (with David Burnett, who has worked on "Insaniac" and "Last House On Hell Street"), and done the same thing on "China White Serpentine" (with Eric Stanze, director of the indie cult hit "Ice From The Sun"). Her next big step? "Directing someone else's work just hasn't really been something I've ever made time to do yet, although some day it'd be a great experiment."

Sadly, Robin is frightfully busy these days, and I have little else of interest to relate about her and her current work. I do intend to follow up and write a second piece about her and the films she has worked on as well as any new projects. Perhaps I can convince her to slip me a few photos of better quality than the ones I used here. In any event, I hope what little I have presented here will serve as an incentive to track down some of her films and see the beginning of what appears to be a long and innovative career for Robin Garrels.

(All screen shots were lifted from the Brentwood DVD version of "Insaniac" using using CyberLink PowerDVD. Just a word of warning, the Brentwood version of "Insaniac" appears to be edited, according to my conversations with Ms. Garrels. Go to www.amazon.com to see about ordering her films. Sub Rosa Films used to have a site, but I have had little luck in tracking it down. You might also try http://www.wickedpixel.com/ as it is related to the people behind Sub Rosa.)

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