Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
March 2018


Amateur hour

On grading on a curve, and the staggering incompetence of Mohawk

Dark Sky Films
Director: Ted Geoghegan
Screenplay: Ted Geoghegan and Grady Hendrix
Starring: Kaniehtiio Horn, Eamon Farren, Ezra Buzzington, Justin Rain, Noah Segan, Robert Longstreet, Jon Huber, Ian Colletti and Sheri Foster
Not rated / 1 hour, 32 minutes / 2.35:1
Limited release / VOD
(out of four)

A local community-theatre troupe goes through dress rehearsal for a War of 1812-themed production in the woods behind your parents' house. All cast members are responsible for bringing (or making) their own costumes. A high-school documentary crew shows up to capture it all on camera.

This is not the official logline for Mohawk, but I'd kinda like to believe it anyway. At least that version would have something of a positive, optimistic connotation. Otherwise, I have to accept the more discouraging reality that there are actual professionals this incompetent at piecing images together, this amateurish at staging action, this incapable of making their movie look like a movie.

There are economical productions and then there are cheap ones. I've found no official data on how much Mohawk cost to make, but no matter the amount - and truly, it could not be low enough - the money doesn't go far. The filmmakers seem to want - or even expect - to be graded on a curve. We had neither the time nor the money to make our motion picture look professional, let alone coherent - nor did we even figure out how to use what time and money we had efficiently - but we had a cool idea and our hearts were in the right place so give us a break, will ya? Miss me with that. I encountered that kind of attitude with distressing regularity when I used to annually attend Sundance; the festival always has strong work at every budget level, and yet still, for certain films, there would be people bending over backwards to excuse and equivocate and rationalize very basic technical incapacity. Taking the context of a film's resources into account in certain ways is OK - you forgive some blemishes here and there; I get that - but I've never understood the value of lowering the bar.

There are so many movies made on minuscule budgets that look utterly sensational - that either miraculously appear to have cost millions more than they really did, or that take full and deliberate advantage of their economic limitations - for something like Mohawk to get a pass for not being able to properly shoot, cut, light or choreograph a scene, not to mention find a decent location. With a great low-budget movie, we're generally aware, to some extent, that we're not seeing anything particularly costly - no elaborate sets, no exotic locales or time-consuming effects work. But we're not going to be actively engaged with the sheer cheapness of it. Mohawk lives entirely in that cheapness. With a few select exceptions - namely the elliptical, dreamlike interstitials that pop into the film's consciousness intermittently, a single figure enveloped in darkness - the film never doesn't look like actors wearing costumes wandering around in local woods and backyards. We're never, ever, ever (that's two evers) unaware that we're watching 21st Century places masquerading as a movie set. I half-expected to see parked cars and cell phones. It's artificial to the extent that one might be inclined to think director Ted Geoghegan is doing it on purpose, like some sort of half-decipherable Brechtian gesture.

Even, say, going the Dogville route would have created a more authentic-looking experience; at least a nearly empty stage has presence. Mohawk's woods and yards are just as sparsely detailed, yet their artifice (especially as early 19th-Century stand-ins) is accidental. Making matters worse is that those woods - where most of the narrative takes place - are supposed to be the film's central evocative force. They are supposed to have this haunted, inescapable feel - as if the characters are trapped in a disorienting maze cursed by spiritual forces, a waystation between the world of the living and the world of the dead. But nothing in the film's arsenal - not its camera placement, not its sound design - is able to express that delirium, that doom.

The filmmakers' choice to shoot using natural daylight does not provoke a sense of naturalism, but rather one of amateurism - exposing the worst qualities of video in that sharp, hyper-realistic way that paradoxically undermines the images' verisimilitude. (I don't have the technical expertise to expound on the contrasting effects of various equipment choices, but I can say that outdoor digital photography has a skittish track record, particularly in its texture and its sense of movement. Here, cinematographer Karim Hussain gives us a familiar, deeply ugly incarnation. At its worst, the film might make you feel like you're watching it on a hotel-room television, improperly framed with the motion-smoothing turned on.)

Mohawk's every visual choice exacerbates the problems of the next. There's a frankly inexcusable spatial incoherence to the film's many action-oriented scenes, made worse by some bizarrely disorienting shot choices - the close-ups in particular - and jarringly inept handheld camerawork. What's most conspicuous, and most frustrating, is that Geoghegan will often set these sequences up with a clear sense of his angles and distances and character placement - the way he brings figures into the frame (in master shots and other wides), and establishes relationships (physical and otherwise) between characters. And then when the action starts, he completely loses track of everything. Edits make no sense; all sense of geography evaporates; in some shots, there's no sense of what the hell we're even supposed to be looking at, as if the editor is just giving us random insert shots of an anonymous body darting across the frame without providing any sense of where they're coming from or where they wound up. When these scenes end, there's usually a body count - but little indication of how or why it makes sense any of the characters wind up where it turns out they happen to be. For the level of clarity one action scene or another gives us, it might as well be one of those cloudy comic-strip pile-ups where you can't tell what's going on on purpose.

The film - a series of crisscrossing chases, escapes and revenge missions - is every bit as clumsy in its narrative staging as it is in the rest of its visual grammar. One sequence in particular had me wondering: Did this movie even have a location scout? Or did the crew just wander around in the woods and settle on whatever available spots with which they could more or less make do? Two of our heroes are hiding out in a small, narrow cave in the middle of the forest, and their pursuers - a small company of American soldiers led by the dictatorial Captain Hezekiah Holt (Ezra Buzzington) - have discovered them. Unable to drag or lure them out, they decide to smoke them out instead. Inside, Mohawk warrior Okwaho (Kaniehtiio Horn) and her lover retreat all the way to the back of the cave before finding a spot to claw their way out and escape.

Now: That the soldiers do not notice them escaping is not, in and of itself, a problem. In theory, they could easily have escaped quietly and out of view. Except: Well, this being a visual medium and all, we can see the cave, and the small ridge above the cave, and the soldiers standing there in front of the cave. The area of escape is not only in the Americans' direct line of sight (again, it's a very small cave, and low to the ground), it's a few yards in front of them. Yet somehow, they're baffled to discover, some time later, that there are no bodies in the cave, and that there's an escape hole right in front of them, and that they somehow did not see two full-sized humans crawling out of that escape hole that was right in front of them. Staging a movie scene is a matter of illusion. The frame hides and distorts; disparate locations are routinely stitched together to appear connected. Logistical and logical violations make cinematic sense. Yet in this scene the filmmakers are incapable of even figuring out how to handle their own setting, geographically and otherwise. It's as if they've intentionally gone out of their way to stage a scenario designed to visually violate its own credibility.

Later, as the film begins to push toward its crescendo, there's a hilariously inexplicable change in light from one shot to the next - afternoon somehow becomes dusk in the span of two connected, consecutive shots. Now: I should, and will, be diplomatic about this, because the edit is open to interpretation. One plausible justification is that Geoghegan is deliberately trying to frame the passage of time as disorienting and sudden. And if the rest of the film had done a better job putting its images together - done so with cohesive logic or even a coherent awareness of its surroundings - then I would easily give this particular moment the benefit of the doubt and take it as a poetic stroke. But the much more likely explanation is plain old shitty craftsmanship. It seems like the filmmakers just ran out of light on that day of shooting, and then later tried to cut the sequence together to make it seem like a deliberate choice. But who knows for sure. We'll call it a draw and say it's either lyrical or incompetent, but nowhere in between.

I've heard Mohawk described as political, which is an awfully charitable interpretation. The film presents a divide over treatment of the Mohawk people during the War of 1812 - the British on one side and the Americans on the other. That the Americans are the film's antagonists may be a comment of its own, but beyond that the film provides little interrogation into the conflict itself, nor into the primary antagonist's apparent bloodlust. That Holt is a bloodthirsty and borderline tyrannical racist just makes him a movie villain; Geoghegan and co-writer Grady Hendrix provide no further context or examination. Just because you make a war movie set in Iraq, or Vietnam, or World War II doesn't mean you've got anything to say about the War on Terror, or American interventionism, or fascism. Not that Mohawk is required to make a political statement - but we do get the sense that it wants to have one. Perhaps we can blame that on the film's limited budget as well. If only we had more money, we would have been able to afford a political point-of-view. With or without one, Mohawk is a juvenile waste of even its meager resources.

Read more by Chris Bellamy

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