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Talking to Strangers Reviews

Technical fetishism and trite philosophy abound in TALKING TO STRANGERS, a relatively daring American independent film that, despite its strengths, only points out the creative plague in the rest of American independent cinema. Built around a simple gimmick--nine continuous takes arranged in random order and photographed with bravura camera moves and a one-to-one shooting ratio--the film is, metaphorically, about art and the struggle of the artist. Specifically, it is about a pompous, college-educated artiste who tries to find his material by talking to strangers. His type, played by Gruz, is one of mankind's most despicable--a condescending, egocentric leech who preys on others in order to serve his own need to create art. Paradoxically and purposefully, however, the viewer is never really sure of the main character's identity. The movie opens with an impressively photographed sequence in which Gruz, seen from overhead, wanders from street corner to street corner, trying to find the bus he wants. The next seven scenes, each photographed in one day and in one approximately ten-minute take (the maximum amount of film that fits into a camera magazine), are arranged in random order. As a result, the audience has no guide to the director's narrative intentions--an interesting but silly creative technique whereby chance is given more power than the creator. (Techniques of this sort are not particularly revolutionary and have been explored in other art forms--in the music of John Cage, the art of Marcel Duchamp, and the poetry of the Dadaists, for example.) In these sequences, Gruz's character (who is variously a writer, a student, a photographer, or a waiter) talks at, but rarely listens to, a number of strangers. In a soup kitchen, Gruz the writer is confronted by a regular (Hunter) who accuses the young man of being a "spy," someone who needs material more than he needs food and shelter. In another scene, Gruz the photographer meets a homeless but not hopeless young man (Jordan) who thinks he could be a fashion star like those the photographer supposedly knows. Gruz treats him with hip pomposity, promising to arrange a power lunch for the man. The next segment shows Gruz in a bank for a meeting about his school loan. While he waits, the loan officer (Tate) juggles an exchange with an irate customer and a personal, very traumatic phone conversation. Gruz intervenes and tries to come to the woman's aid (we eventually learn that she has had an abortion and that her mate has pretended to commit suicide). "What can you say to me?" she asks, with cynical honesty that Gruz cannot counter. A church visit and a conversation-confession with a Catholic priest (Strozier) comprise the next segment. Gruz, who has never been to confession before, questions the priest about the power of faith versus that of reason. Next, Gruz rides a water taxi that transports passengers around Baltimore. He mistakes three Catholic nuns for Mennonites and asks them if they dislike automobiles. Gruz is next seen on a bus, talking with an older woman who has come to town to visit her daughter. Suddenly a gang boards the bus, and a tough young woman (Chambers) pulls a gun as the main thug (Foster) leads an attack on the bus driver. They take the old woman to the back of the bus and gang rape her, while Chambers and Foster intimidate Gruz. The final stranger Gruz talks to is the potter he slept with the night before (played by Rush, she is the only person we do not see Gruz meet). When he learns that she has been a stripper and a whore, he wants out, claiming that he is looking for someone who is a virgin, at least spiritually. The final segment shows Gruz painting a nondescript area white, eventually turning the paint sprayer on the camera lens. TALKING TO STRANGERS can be, and has been, praised for its attention to form. It has taken narrative structure away from the Hollywood style of drama and placed it in the hands of chance. We are forced to fight our expectations and confront each scene on its own terms. The scenes have no obvious relation to one another other than the main character's talking to strangers. The interest in form doesn't end there: Writer-director Rob Tregenza, who also served as cameraperson, has placed much attention on the actual gathering of the image--the process of putting the image and sound on the screen. As his press material notes, Tregenza has used the Matthews Tulip Dolly, the Matthews CamRemote and Snorkel system, the Fisher Dolly, the Arri 35BL camera, 9,000 feet of Kodak 5294 film stock, and a Dolby compatible stereo mix (without CAT 22 cards). We also know that the scenes have been randomly sequenced and photographed in single takes, using only 9,000 feet of film--meaning that almost all the footage has made it into the final film. (Jon Jost, by now a veteran on the American independent scene, has similarly used a 1:1 shooting ratio.) Although 9 scenes appear in the film, 12 were written. If one scene didn't work on its first take, it was to be thrown out and replaced with a new scene (an event that never occurred, since all went off without a hitch except the potter scene, which was cut down to eight and one-half minutes). This technical gadgetry and data, combined with Tregenza's eye and imagination, have produced some beautifully choreographed camera moves, but it is only in the bus scene that the camerawork seems an integral part of the scene. Other scenes are impressively shot, especially in the logistics of moving through the crowded soup kitchen, but the camerawork is film-schoolish gimmickry. In the bus segment, on the other hand, the single take works to the scene's favor. At the edges of the frame we can glimpse the rape of the older woman in the back of the vehicle; our attention, however, is focused on Gruz's character. Here the viewer desperately wants to cut away from the violence occurring in the background but is tied to it, unable to block it from sight or mind. Because of its structure, some scenes in TALKING TO STRANGERS succeed better than others. However, the work must be taken as a whole (albeit a random whole), and as a whole it rarely rises above the conventions of American independent cinema--conventions that are just as prevalent in traditional Hollywood narrative cinema. It is cerebration in full force; every move exists to further the director's manifesto of film phenomenology. It is not a bad picture but a disappointing one--a daring, noble, and commercially suicidal attempt to push the envelope of narrative film structure that says everything with its form and nothing with its dialog. Where American independent film has failed in recent years is precisely where TALKING TO STRANGERS fails: It has attempted to create with equipment and technique (in all facets: preproduction, production, and postproduction) and not with ideas. But what is most unfortunate about TALKING TO STRANGERS is the reception it has received in the US, where it has been irresponsibly ignored by all American festivals to which it has been submitted (though it received some specialized screenings), including those that are supposedly supporters of American independent cinema. TALKING TO STRANGERS dares to be different and, though it may not be entirely successful, deserves to be seen and recognized as an alternative to today's Hollywood system. (Violence.)