The Dabbler, The Dreamer, and the Man Who Broke the World [#2wkfilm]

Reid Gershbein’s The Dabbler…, one of several films produced for the Two-Week Film Collective, focuses on a group of young adults who find themselves adrift for a variety of reasons.  Cheryl only comes alive at “naked parties” when she is “intimately touched” by others.  Jeffrey is a writer, incapable of committing to writing pretty much anything.  Their friend, Orlando, simply seems lost.  As Angelo Bell points out in his insightful review, it’s not a leap to connect their malaise to our ongoing economic crisis. Against this familiar setting, however, Gershbein offers a defamiliarizing semi-sci-fi narrative, in which a mysterious box somehow manages to disrupt all of the world’s (or at least San Francisco’s) electrical and electronic equipment.  No cell phones, no Blackberries, no cars and computers.

The central characters in Gershbein’s movie accept this situation with little alarm. They go for walks, hang out on the beach, sit in gardens and reflect, but mostly they talk.  About dreams. About the desire to create. About their own confusion over their sense of self. The meandering dialogue reminded me a little of the philosophical conversations depicted in some of Richard Linklater’s films (Slacker, Waking Life, Before Sunrise), especially given the eclectic mix of artists and experimenters, the Gen X subjects who find themselves adrift, uncertain of what direction to take.  Oddly, they don’t talk–much–about the lack of electronic equipment.  In fact, this lack seems to provide them with the freedom to wander and explore, in much the same way that the frozen city in Rene Clair’s classic modernist fable, Paris qui dort (Paris Asleep/The Crazy Ray), allows a small band of itinerant explorers the leisure to escape (however briefly) from the rush of modern urban life in 1920s Paris.  In fact, like Paris qui dort, The Dabbler defamiliarizes both in terms of plot and in terms of style.  Gershbein’s “tilt-shift” aesthetic suggests a cinematic world that is, itself, stuttering along, almost on the verge of breaking apart, perhaps a consequence of whatever is in the mysterious box that disrupted all of that electronic equipment.  As Kevin Wright observes, “The tilt shift style adds to the world the characters inhabit. It makes sense for things to blur and seem unnatural because their world is unclear and for the majority of the film, broken.” And like Mike Peter Reed, the film’s easy slippage into an alternate reality closely resembling our own reminded me of the best work by Philip K Dick.

As they explore their surroundings, Cheryl describes a dream she had in which she encountered a never-ending wall, and facing the impossibility of getting around it, she draws a door.  Later in the film, Cheryl, while talking to Jeffrey, literalizes her dream, drawing a door in a stone wall with a piece of chalk and allowing Cheryl to perform a brief monologue in front of Jeffrey–and a couple of strangers–in which she establishes the film’s implicit theme: “The funniest thing about us is that we think we have all this time… instead of embracing the magic that’s here…right now.”  Instead of aimless drifting, Cheryl seems to embrace the opposite: making a decision, acting, writing that story.  And by implication, given the unique circumstances of The Dabbler’s production over the course of two weeks, making that film.  Although The Dabbler depicts a set of characters who are adrift, lost, or broken, the film itself is clearly going somewhere.  It is engaging not only with the broken world we inhabit but also with the possibilities of using a new cinematic language for talking (or thinking) about that world.

You can watch The Dabbler… for free on Gershbein’s website, under a Creative Commons license, and if you like the film and want to support it, you can buy a “unit of imaginary air” (or make a donation) to support the film.

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