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Rick McGrath [Celluloid 05.23.10] Israel China movie review experimental

Year: 2009
Directors: Ran Slavin
Writers: Ran Slavin
IMDB: link
Trailer: link
Review by: Rick McGrath
Rating: 7 out of 10

When quietearth announced the trailer for The Insomniac City Cycles my hand shot up instantly to see it – this is the kinda artsy flick I love to wallow in – gorgeous shots within a nutsy non-narrative, crumbling cohesion through arbitrary action, and lots of wacky weirdness to hold it all together, or apart. PsychoCycleDrama!

Talk about a tease. You can actually get a very good feel for the visual glories of TICC by the scenes revealed in the movie’s trailer. In fact, almost all the best eye candy parts of the movie are encapsulated in this fascinating short. Unfortunately, multi-media artist and film auteur Ran Slavin can’t quite maintain this level of interest throughout The Insomniac City Cycles. Even at a novelette 62 minutes there are slightly too many sleep-inducing lulls in the un-action to keep you up and alert. The trouble with not having enough content is that you often have to repeat yourself… a quick trip to the death of affect.

But let’s get to the zany plot first. Actually, once you know what’s going on, the literal action is fairly straightforward. Slavin, however, juices things up by first showing us an initial long sequence without any explanation, and the movie begins with a great montage of different satellite shots of the Middle East. We start off in the reality of high technology but it soon becomes apparent we’re in some dream or fantasy as a confused and shot man lost in a huge empty car park in Tel Aviv appears to see himself in a surreal succession of scenes in which the images move ever deeper into a kind of subjective assimilation of human and urban into a single being. At first I thought this was the classic non-sequitur mindtrip of a dying brain, but as the man and the city become one magically Tel Aviv begins to alter and evolve into a sort of futuristic Venice cloned with Abu Dhabi, an impossible architecture that flows and sways above water-filled streets in a distorted reflection of, what? A body? A memory? As the trailer reveals, it’s all quite fascinating as we jump from the empty Ballardian car park to the evolving city to symbolic cutaways – our man either underwater with a gun, or on fire in a large, abandoned concrete-lined space – and all quite understandable as soon as we cut to the source – a lady in bed in Shanghai. This isn’t real, it’s the symbol-laden dream of a distraught dame, and in this psychological fantasy the shot man seems to represent some psychogeographic association with Tel Aviv.

The second wheel of The Insomniac City Cycles is a kind of repetition and extenuation of the first, as this story reveals the woman in bed is paying someone to shoot her – an echo that unfolds against the context of the man who was shot. Just who is dreaming this, we ask ourselves? And does Shanghai have any significance? This section of the cycle involves the woman, the shot man, the dandy killer, and the organizer, a hired heavy who hangs out in a noisy pet store. He’s great, the sound effects hilarious, and the disjointed dialogue vacillates between dominance and submission, sex and death, and Slavin goes to some trouble to reinforce the idea there’s a connection between the dream man and the hired assassin, both of whom arrive with guns and dance their dandy dances, but after the enigmatic final scenes, the unlikely death love song and the rather abrupt ending the only idea that seems to stick involves the twin themes of sex and death entwined in some urban nightmare of conceptual suicide disguised as some fetishistic orgasm over a lost love. Man or city? But we really don’t need an “explanatory” meaning for this flick. It all seems to be the surreal ripping of a sleep-deprived brain, anyway, with the man-city and girl-city swapping dreams and memories, mostly false.

All sounds great so far, no? So why the measly seven score? Sorry, but TICC does tend to drag along in too many places. With slightly too many bad camera shots. Too many repeats. Too much filler. About halfway thru the movie, after we had montaged through downtown Shanghai for much too long, a depressing thought struck me as to how Slavin might have put this effort together. At least half of TICC is endless cuts of artsy city archi shots, nighttime traffic bokehs, quick, dizzying pans of po-mo urbanity and long shots of boats plying the Shanghai harbor in the dark. Yes, there are fantastic, funky computer-generated distortions of downtown Tel Aviv, but they’re sadly brief. I’m guessing budgetary restrictions. OK, here’s my scenario: let’s say you had hours of artsy vid of Tel Aviv and Shanghai, but what to do with it? Well, you could come up with a darkly crazy plot to tie the cities together, hire four actors, and basically do all the work yourself to pastiche together a movie from all the bits. What’s ironic is TICC is only 62 minutes long, but it feels a lot longer. My guess that Slavin built this up from his storehouse of sundry footage is reinforced by the version of this movie I saw, which included a very fast-paced, excited two minute montage of Shanghai after the final credits had rolled. Outtakes, re-edited.

That may not be the way this Cycle of Cycles came about, but it does explain the endless array of city shots. Yes, a lot are great but many are mundane. TICC is also rife with lots of repetition -- many sequences are shown at least a dozen times, and while I don’t mind that as a function of how memory and the tripping dream-mind work, it does tend to start to reinforce the nagging feeling that this is partially art, partially filler. Ditto with Slavin’s love of basic editing tricks, most notably reverse action. And did I say there was lots of repetition?

It’s also interesting Slavin called this a Cycle, as that implies an overall theme. Well, the cities are insomniac, and the cities are the man and woman, so we could be watching a metaphor for all sorts of aspects of love… and the dark madness it creates. These enigmatic psychodramas are usually set up for endless interpretation anyway… that’s why they’re arty!

The Insomniac City… perhaps it’s also a look at what the sleepless see… waking dreams… or nightmares. Or an extended masturbatory fantasy? Hey, ya never know. Would I recommend you stay up for this movie? In many ways I think it’s great – cool concepts, arthouse vibes, fine acting, great computer graphics, energizing enigmas – but then it goes and overdoes itself with just slightly too many cutaway montages of inferior quality and relentless repetition. Handheld hell, if you know what I mean, with production values just shabby enough to draw your attention. You have to figure Slavin had no other choice, however, as TICC is an auteur’s effort with obviously no budget to work with. You can save a lot of money when one person is the writer, director, cinematographer, producer and editor, and adds some original music.

It may be this flick, even with its flaws, is a no-money masterpiece that combines a few expensive scenes with endless hours of Final Cut Pro. What might be a real killer is this movie as a short story, say, reduced to 30 minutes. Wow. This story with less repetition and snappy pacing would be a hot cuppa joe, indeed!

Overall, my reaction is medium-positive, but perhaps I was expecting more after being tantalized with the trippy trailer and synopsis. While TICC has great moments, my main moan is the sleep-inducing paucity of pace and tempo. However, if that slightly flat tire doesn’t bother you then The Insomniac City Cycles should be a fun, if slowish ride.

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