A Raindance Film Festival review of THE BLACK BELLE and interview with the film's writer/director
BRIAN McGUIRE & actor JOEY CAPONE by Timothy E. RAW
If the experience of Steven Soderbergh's Ocean's Twelvewas akin to watching other people's haphazardly smashed together vacation films, rife with architectural non-sequiters and no-frame-of-reference in-jokes, writer/director Brian McGuire's The Black Belle is what happens the year those same people can't afford the vacation. Instead, they go camping somewhere closer to home and decide to take the camcorder with them. Sat around the fire, late at night after one beer too many, it's like listening in on a circle of guys speaking out of turn as they try to top one another with tall tales of sexual encounters, grossly exaggerated through the haze of boozy recollection. Like a drunkard telling it how he'd like it remembered, The Black Belle is a laid back but narratively shapeless stichwork of episodes, ossified in their increasingly gumptious comic inanity and lairy aspirations to bad taste.
Picking through the remains of the titular man-eater's trail of tattered reputations and imploded marriages, we come to know the shadows of men Belle has already left for dead, dragging themselves up out of the gutter and trying to pick up the pieces, with disastrous results. They range from cuckolded boyfriends, treacherous best friends and married men playing away from home. All of them men who let their cocks do the thinking: a host of "that guy" actors trade on every last scrap of celebrity to satisfy their sexual appetites, whilst sexually insecure tragics bone-headedly mistake sex for love, believing a foursome is just what's needed to establish trust and connection with a significant other sending mixed signals.
Splitting these events and characters over three chapters gives the light and breezy impression of sketch comedy, but like the drunken storyteller, how quickly lubricated snappy banter can give way to belligerent condescension. These belches of tone are apparent throughout, not surprisingly because something this coarse can only be momentarily amusing before it descends into frat-boy vapidity. The most pertinent example features a drunken circle of has-been actors hauled up in a dingy bar, swapping sordid sexual stories; among them former Gregg Araki leading man James Duval and one time Dazed and Confused stoner Jason London, playing exaggerated asshole versions of themselves with self-effacing jibes at their current D-list status poking through the on-screen machismo and brash vanity. For those in their very late twenties/early thirties, there's undoubtedly fun to be had watching these nineties-flashback faces drowning their sorrows up at the bar with Ron Jeremy. It's as if Ari Gold had been cast out of Hollywood, traded blockbusters for pornography and took the boys with him.
If this is Entourage with a potty mouth, then what was similarly appealing in season one just wasn't funny anymore by the time season six limped out of the gate. Watching that misbegotten show's trajectory in compacted form, it becomes quickly apparent that once you get past the spunky post-modern twists all you're left with is unabashed corporeal gratification. There's only so many times you can find amusement in people speaking of one night stands with the same reverent tone most of us reserve for the ex we'll never be able to shake off. The televisual comparison is apt, given that the material as it stands is too tossed-off and flabby to stand up as a movie—but as a late-night TV show in Spongebob-sized chunks, its pull-it-out-jerk-it off approach would be well served, as it'd be over before you ever had to time to think about just how debasing it was. At times, it appears that McGuire is all-too aware of how his outrageousness has the potential to alienate, and so he drastically shifts tone into the ickily anxious register of Sex, Lies & Videotape with its wayward slant on dysfunctional relationships for the climactic foursome; a jarring move, but one which undeniably yields the most impressionable dramatic moments. Here we see the aforementioned cuckold, Franklyn, sublimate his desire for exclusivity with Belle into ensuring that no-one else has her—this stalwart (albeit distorted) defense of monogamy turns out to be the film's sole rebuttal to prurient promiscuity, but is all the more troubling when the explicit idealism of swingers passes itself off as progressive pragmatism. All Franklyn has to do is let his hair down and snuggle up to sleaze; an attitude that suggests McGuire has a very low opinion of his sex.
I realize how ridiculous I sound, harping on about my hang-up with a sex comedy's bawdy lasciviousness, but only because for the filmmakers it seems to imply more of a worldview than the stuff of anecdotal, dirty guffaws. And for all the talk of deviant sexuality, this is a disappointingly tame work. Beyond all its colourful language, it doesn't have anywhere near the same amount of visual gall. We hear much of James Duval's run-ins with comic convention groupies dressed as Frank the bunny from Donnie Darko—and the story of him reprising his most indelible role as pop culture's last great Halloween costume for a bout of bathroom stall nerd sex is a perversely hilarious one. In our interview, McGuire talks about how Duval wanted them to make fun of his career as much as possible and "go all the way" to get a laugh. Rather than simply hear about the ‘perks' of this between-films gig, why not actually go that far and show Frank doing the dirty? Or if the sight of a bunny doing it doggie is even too much for this film, then perhaps just a quick flash-cut of Duval all bunny from the head down, running for his life acrossa hotel hallway, an army of Manga-clad geek girls in hot pursuit. Of all the stories swapped at the bar, this is the safest for print, but in each case a flash-cut or an abstract image held long enough to make us squirm would have turned a smirk into an uncomfortable belly laugh. Much as I loathe to admit it, in an age where gross-out humour rules, The Black Belle comes off as a little chaste, despite swearing like a sailor. Nowhere is this more awkwardly felt than during the final foursome, where everyone except Natasha Alam's Belle shows a little skin, a decision that makes the maneater's supposedly devastating allure that much more unbelievable.
Belle herself is largely absent for the film's duration, so you expect her screen time to have a no strings, clothes-shedding amorality. No doubt about it, The Black Belle really talks the talk when it wants, but I only wish it walked half as well. The most sexually provocative image is a long-held take on Belle's naked ass as two married men (one of whom is played by the director) wake up in her basement apartment with no idea how they got there. It's without question a great ass, but there's probably more in your-face-kink from Lawrence Michael Levine's ambition to be Raindance's male answer to Kate Winslet this year, getting down to his birthday suit numerous times in both Green and Gabi on the Roof in July. The striking shot of Natasha Alam's teasing black and white pose in the festival advertising—all come-hither eyes and femme fatale posturing—is ultimately just that, and very misleading, given the film's all-male perspective. It seems that the choice was made for marketing purposes only, and it is all but forgotten about once the guys start talking about Belle.
McGuire clearly had a lot of quirky ideas that he wanted to make a movie out of, but didn't spend long enough properly considering how to tie these "wouldn't it be great if…" notions together—yes, the idea of ruined men linked by their survival of a black widow is a great hook, but in order for it to work her presence has to loom large, and it just doesn't here. Maybe it's the lack of backstory or motivation for her actions that the baton-passing between episodes doesn't feel as seamless as it should be and lacks any forward-reaching consequences for Belle's eventual appearance. In the end, the puzzle pieces not fitting as well as they should impacts the effectiveness of the comedy, given precious little to hang it on.
The Black Belle is too scattershot to ever shift gears beyond being intermittently witty, a shame when considering that, as you'll see from our interview, Brian McGuire is clearly quick-witted himself. On-screen and in person, his wirey enthusiasm reminds of Edward Norton suddenly having developed a sense of humour, and sitting in front of him, dressed in an oversized jacket and wearing a mischievous grin missing only the toothpick—I thought especially of Norton in Rounders, the one role where it was unequivocally easy to root for him, despite his untrustworthy behaviour. McGuire prides himself on the conviction in his directorial choices, another aspect of his character that makes him flatly impossible not to like, even when his justifications appear less than fully formed.
Despite many of the fundamental problems I have with the storytelling and its inability to settle on a consistent tone, there's much to recommend here in terms of game performances, which are always pleasingly offbeat, and this certainly bodes well for McGuire and co-star Joey Capone's next effort Carlos Spills the Beans, as many of the same cast members return for a third outing after this and On Holiday, solidifying the chemistry between the ensemble. Maguire's scenes as Nicky, a dweeby suburbanite being advised by his used car dealer best friend Mikey (Bret Roberts), crackle with the comedic tension of antagonism masquerading as friendship; two people who probably grew up together, but now as adults deeply disapprove of each other's lifestyles, sticking together for no other reason than to vicariously walk the path they were too afraid to take after senior year. Their good friend/bad friend routine is an energetic back and forth of shots fired across the bow and constant one-upmanship, a segment of the film as thoroughly engrossing as it is propulsive. Terry Wanye also impresses as Belle's obsessively jealous boyfriend Franklyn. Always looking over his shoulder for the next guy that might threaten to steal Belle away from him, he's a continual quivering downpour of sweat beads.
How all this adds up I'm still not quite sure, and how ready you are to go with The Black Belle's hair-of-the-dog irreverence may depend on your willingness to accept the bizarre for its own self-indulgent sake. Take for instance Harry Dean Stanton's head-scratching cameo; sitting in back of a sex club, quietly responding with agitated disgust to a big spender's bareback code of conduct. What could have appealed to him about this role is anyone's guess, but if like me you don't care much for random unconnected WTF-moments that bring the storytelling to a screeching halt, might I suggest you'll more readily see the humour in it and reap the film's minor rewards if you're a few cans down on an anything-but-sober Friday night. Like the inebriated guys round the fire, emboldened by their strange brew, the men behind the camera are saying it like they mean it, but not knowing exactly what it is they want.
I'm confident however, that McGuire will have figured that out for his next go around in the director's chair.
Video interview: BRIAN MCGUIRE and JOEY CAPONE
This exclusive interview was conducted for DVD Outsider by Timothy E. RAW at the Raindance TV Studio in London on Tuesday 4th October 2011.
The Black Belle screened Thursday 6th October 2011 at 12.00 and 18.30 as part of the 2011 Raindance Film Festival.