Loren Cass, the beautiful, brutal, moving first film by the 21 year-old Chris Fuller. was shot with what its distributor, Kino International, aptly calls a “bare-bones crew.” Its location (St Petersburg, Florida) is established in the opening image with a long-distance view of a block of buildings by a highway. Its period is announced by an ominous off-screen baritone voice, which declares over a long-held trumpet note, “Back in nineteen ninety-seven.”
The movie’s three main characters – Jason (Travis Maynard), Nicole (Kayla Tabish) and Cale (Lewis Brogan, actually Chris Fuller himself), all of them teenagers – are introduced in disconnected episodes. Jason’s room could be in a photograph by Dorothea Lange. Its walls are covered with newspapers, some of them falling down. Jason himself looks neglected and poor. He’s a skinhead with tattoos all over his body and lots of facial piercings, and is fueled entirely by alcohol and anger. As Jason waits outside for Cale to pick him up and drive him to school, it’s surprising to see that his house is actually quite decent. Jason himself is anything but. He’s a neo-Nazi and the very sight of a black man throws him into a rage.
Not so with Nicole who will screw any man she wants, regardless of race and reckless of possible disease. Otherwise she’s a responsible girl. She drives her own car (a red convertible) and holds down a job as a waitress. With her long blond hair, shiny lacquered lips and heavily made-up eyes, she looks like a Baroque painting of Mary Magdalene. She and Jason and Cale pass each other on their way to school, their trip intercut with shots of road signs reading STOP and ONE WAY.
Inside the school, the memorable images aren’t the usual ones of classroom, cafeteria and gym. Instead they’re of empty hallways and, most indelibly, of the urinals in the bathroom where a faceless boy in one of the stalls is loading a heavy revolver. The fluid camera movement, the soundtrack of heavy-metal and the almost total absence of speech establish the tone, one of fatefulness, alienation, doom. After school, there’s a violent punch-up involving Jason and Cale and one of their black classmates. The next thing we see is Jason at night walking towards us. A voice says, or rather intones, “Saint Petersburg, a dirty, dirty town by a dirty, dirty sea…”.
Nicole takes her car to Cale’s garage when its engine overheats. Their prosaic exchange about the car is as close to a conversation as anything in the movie so far and their body language, mostly glances, suggests a possible high school romance, as well as the welcome possibility of a storyline. Their first date is in the diner where Nicole works. She tells him of a road trip she once took with her parents. “I hated it,” she tells him and goes on to say she’s going to get away some day. “And you?” she says. “I went to Brooklyn,” he tells her. “Do you want to go for a drive?” he says. He takes her on a bus ride, an actually quite tender scene, and Cale is the one man in the movie to whom sex with Nicole means more than a fuck.
Towards the end of the movie, we watch Jason empty a dumpster. Finding a vial of red ink and a discarded syringe, he sits down on the ground and tattoos on his forearm the name “Loren Cass.” This deliberate, painstaking, dangerous act raises many questions, including, why Loren Cass? The director says that it’s “an intentionally ambiguous [name] (non-gender specific, etc.) that [shows] a character… thinking about another person so intensely that he permanently etches her/his name on his arm.” To quote the subtitle of Stevie Smith’s incomparable Novel on Yellow Paper, “Make of It What You Will.” I make of it that Jason and the others belong to the tradition of tragi-comic misery in such works as Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, Beckett’s The Unnamable and Aki Kaurismäki’s Man Without a Past.
Merely to narrate the story of Loren Cass does it an injustice. It’s both a movie and the stand-apart picture of a generation. Before these teenagers lie a world without hope, one inflamed by racial hatred, engulfed in despair and devoid of any decent authority. There’s suicide in the movie (two successful, the other not), homelessness and a brutal encounter with police. How Fuller is able to draw from this so much indelible beauty and convulsive humor is a tribute to his way with actors (himself included); his skill as director, writer and editor; and, above all, to his choice of William Garcia as cinematographer.
As well as being a promising first film, Loren Cass is a brave and complex work of art.
USA, 2007; in English; 83 minutes; DigiBeta; Color
Directed by Chris Fuller
Music by Hayden, Leftover Crack, Don Caballero, Propagandhi, Billy Brag, Hüsker Dü, Chocking Victim, DJ Shadow and Stiff Little Fingers
Released by Kino International