Saturday, 3 May 2014

Watch Out

Director: Steve Balderson
Writers: Steve Balderson, Joseph Suglia
Producer: Steve Balderson
Cast: Matt Riddlehoover
Country: USA
Year of release: 2008
Reviewed from: screener

If you’ve read my review of Breathe Safely, the inarguable Worst British Film Ever Made, you may recall a phrase which I borrowed from a TV critic to describe director Paul Push - “a man who probably masturbates to videos of himself masturbating.” Little did I realise when I used that delightful turn of phrase that only a few months later I would be watching a film about a man who literally does masturbate to a video of himself masturbating.

Watch Out is a unique film. From Steve Balderson we would expect no less. Unlike Steve’s previous features, this one is adapted from a novel; author Joseph Suglia shares screen credit. I haven’t read the novel (never even heard of it, to tell the truth but I understand that it’s pretty famous) and I’ll wager that most of you haven’t either so I can only review this as a film in its own right.

Trying to explain what the movie is about... well, it’s easier to say who it’s about. Matt Riddlehoover gives an extraordinary, bravura performance as Jonathan Barrows: on-screen pretty much constantly and also providing a voice-over throughout much of the film. While narration is generally frowned upon in narrative cinema, it would be impossible to film this story without it because Barrows spends a considerable amount of time alone and it’s what he’s thinking as much as - possibly more than - what he’s doing which matters.

Because Jonathan Barrows is neither heterosexual nor homosexual, he is an autosexual: in love with, or at least physically attracted to, himself. In one of the movie’s most memorable scene - and frankly Watch Out is a movie consisting almost entirely of memorable scenes - Barrows has sex with a blow-up doll having first sellotaped a photo of himself over the doll’s face. Even when he shares a scene with other people, it’s Barrows’ internal monologue that drives the film although there are some excellent extended cameos along the way.

Plot-wise, very little happens. After black and white, 1920s-style opening titles the prologue see Mr and Mrs Barrows (Jon Niccum and Nancy Pujol) attempting to arrange their teenage son’s deflowerment, despite his very evident lack of interest in girls. Although the film as a whole is deliberately stilted and mannered, the mannerisms and, ah, stilting in this prologue are more over-the-top than throughout the rest of the picture. Watch Out as a whole reminded me of the work of John Waters, the differentiation being that most of it is like later John Waters stuff and this first sequence is more like his early work (though without the shit-eating or the overweight transvestites). Jonathan’s parents try to pair him off with the inbred girl next door and when that doesn’t work they hire a prostitute then sit and watch the attempted intercourse, armed with popcorn and palmcorder.

The bulk of the film sees Barrows, now grown-up but still a virgin (if one discounts blow-up dolls and his own right hand) on his way to a job interview at a small college in a small town in Michigan. He checks into a hotel staffed by a creepy, gay desk clerk who comes on to Barrows by assuring him that he’s not gay. At the college, the sassy receptionist has no knowledge of the interview and the professor who should be interviewing him only takes one class a week - so Barrows is forced to stay in the little town for a few days.

And that’s about it, plotwise. Barrows has a series of nonsexual, sex-related encounters with men, women and couples, most of whom come on to him and all of whom he rejects with a sneer. Eventually he manages to track down the elusive Dr Mendoza by - and I’m sure this is not coincidental - hiding in a closet.

Watch Out sits somewhere between intense character study and black comedy; there are some laugh-out-loud moments but really it’s like nothing you’ve ever seen. Barrows’ brooding, supercilious view of humanity as something which has reached its pinnacle in him reminded me in small parts of Fight Club (referenced on a character’s T-shirt). He really is a loathsome character - literally a pretentious wanker - and yet fascinating because everyone who has ever felt an outsider or imagined that no-one understands them can relate to his situation and think, there but for the grace of God...

Barrows is absolutely convinced that he is better than everyone else: smarter, socially superior and certainly better-looking. Rather than furtively having one off the wrist, he really does have sex with himself. Not literally (he’s not that talented or well-hung!) but as near as damn it. In one scene he rolls around on his bed taking Polaroid photos of his dick, in another he leaves his table in a restaurant to nip into the gents with a couple of little tubs of margarine for an exhilarating sherman.

While my non-British readers get to grips with phrases like “an exhilarating sherman”, it’s worth noting that Watch Out is devoid of euphemisms, slang or obscenities (apart from the ‘coming soon’ gag in the publicity). Barrows’ detached view of sexuality is emphasised by his unflinching use of the terms ‘penis’ and ‘vagina’ (along with ‘labia’, ‘glans’ - it’s like a medical textbook in places). Visually the film is just as explicit. We never see a cum-shot and I think I’m right in saying that we never actually see Barrows/Riddlehoover with a full erection. But there is plenty of full-frontal nudity and Matt Riddlehoover’s devotion to duty is nothing short of exemplary. Many actors would have blanched at some of the things he has to do.

Then, after he has tracked down Dr Mendoza - and berated him for his polemic about the importance of marriage and community in a scene which never shows us any students, raising the question of whether Mendoza is talking to himself - suddenly everything changes and Watch Out becomes a different film. A horror film.

Twenty minutes from the end, a caption announces ‘Act Two’ which caught me by surprise because I had completely forgotten the ‘Act One’ caption seventy minutes earlier. In this much shorter second part we’re back in Barrows’ home town including a fairly lengthy sequence about his teenage babysitter and her boyfriend who become two of several victims of gory, sick violence at the hands of her thirteen-year-old charge. Most of the victims are known to Barrows personally but one is a mega-selling pop singer whom he kidnaps before chopping off her toes one by one. She is called Margaret but let’s face it, she’s Britney.

And then the film ends... and the reviewer is left to work out what it all means.

Watch Out is an easy film to like, if you’re not put off by things like vomit, masturbation and graphic, anatomical descriptions of sex acts. Or a man forced to eat his own severed penis. It’s fascinating, that’s what it is and that’s what all Steve Balderson features (with the exception of the work-for-hire documentary Underbelly) are. While it doesn’t have the opulence or grandeur of Steve’s masterpiece Firecracker, Watch Out is a step up (and a natural progression) from Pep Squad, sharing that film’s hyper-real dialogue, characterisation and cinematography.

But that’s what it’s like, not what it’s about. I’m prevaricating because I don’t know what Watch Out is about. It’s about Jonathan Barrows and his love affair with himself, that’s the best I can offer you. I suspect that the novel is one of those unique literary beasts like American Psycho or The Dice Man that digs deep into the disturbed yet strangely sane psyche of an individual who not only believes himself to be great but actually knows it. If it is, then there is no doubt that Steve has done a magnificent job of translating it to cinema.

Because this is indubitably and very recognisably a Steve Balderson film - which means that it is visually astounding and it takes chances that no other film-maker’s work would, not just for shock value but as part of a cohesive whole. Watching one of Steve’s films one always feels like a participant rather than an audience, as if the director is sitting in the next seat, occasionally whispering, “Ooh, there’s a good bit coming up here,” and sometimes as genuinely eager to find out what happens next as the rest of us. For example there is a scene in a restaurant where Barrows orders oysters and then waits for them to be served: an unblinking, locked-off shot of a man sitting at a table while muzak plays and other diners can be seen in the background. I didn’t time it but this seems to go on for three or four minutes - it’s probably less but with something like this it’s how long it feels, not how long it is.

Oo-er. Sorry

The point is that this is a very long, uncut shot of a man doing nothing except waiting and most directors would not have the balls to show this. Somehow the combination of Steve’s direction and Riddlehoover’s performance justifies this. It’s masterful film-making. It leaves you in awe.

What confuses me about Watch Out is its two-act structure and especially the imbalance of it. The impression I got - rightly or wrongly - was that this was two parallel timelines, showing us what would happen if Jonathan Barrows kept his psychosexual angst bottled up inside him (Act One) or released it through sadistic violence (Act Two). That may be completely wide of the mark but I can only report what I saw and speculate on its meaning. I’m not even entirely sure that everything we see is real and really happening, harking back to that Fight Club riff.

There is no doubt that Watch Out has the potential to be one of the great cult films of all time, probably more so than Firecracker because of its outrĂ© images and themes (and the existing fanbase for the source novel). I’m the first person to review this but already I can imagine the conflicting comments on the IMDB: some people will lambast this as a load of pretentious arthouse crap that just tries to shock. That’s because some people are very, very good at missing the point. Other folk will watch this then pick their jaws off the floor and rush to tell all their friends that they must watch it too. Steve considers this his best film to date and, ironically for such an obtuse story, it probably is his most direct and personal feature.

As usual, he has assembled an eclectic cast of remarkable performers including Peter Stickles from Fred Olen Ray-directed vampire TV series The Lair, prolific B-movie actor Jeff Dylan Graham (Cremains, Dead and Rotting, Dead Clowns, Dorm of the Dead), Starina Johnson (who was in Riddlehoover’s MySpace sensation film To a Tee) and BBW performance poet/burlesque dancer Lady Monster. Betti O, who played Miss Nelson in Pep Squad and Rosemary in Firecracker, is terrific as the sassy college receptionist and the very wonderful Amy Kelly, who was Susie in Firecracker and the unforgettable Terra in Pep Squad is superb as a forward woman in a bar who tries to pick up Barrows by drawing attention to her breasts. Why isn’t this woman a big star yet?

The crew was small, with Steve doing his own cinematography. Rob Kleiner, variously of such underground beat combos as Tub Ring, Mindless Self Indulgence, Super 8 Bit Brothers and The Baltimores, provides a masterful score that is almost worth the price of admission on its own. The film's website includes several 'video blogs' and the whole creative process is being chronicled in the third of Steve's feature-length documentaries, Wamego: Ultimatum. Also worth noting and praising is the way that Steve has made all the publicity shots for Watch Out look like proper old-fashioned 8x10 stills with captions. Nicely retro!

Do I understand Watch Out? Not completely. If you want straightforward narrative, Pep Squad remains Steve’s most accessible film. But Watch Out is not a film about storytelling, it’s a film about characterisation. It’s about sex, non-sex, psychology, society and a psychopathic sociopath. It’s extraordinary, a film which settles down into your consciousness and is still there days later, images and ideas flashing in and out of the viewer’s brain.

It is exactly the sort of film which those of us who have discovered American independent cinema’s best-kept secret expect from young Mr Balderson. Steve B has done it again.

MJS rating: A

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