By Dean Goldberg.
There’s an often quoted line attributed to director Alfred Hitchcock that goes like this: “Drama is life with the boring parts cut out.” Flesh and Blood, a new film that turned heads at the 2017 SXSW Film Festival, bounces Hitch’s statement on its end. Indeed, actor/director Mark Webber has served up a narrative that has all the earmarks of a documentary, except for the fact that it isn’t. How Flesh and Blood ultimately defines itself is both the strength and weakness of the film.
Flesh and Blood is based on real life events in Webber’s life and is “acted” by the real life characters. The narrative, what there is of it, unfolds in a series of loosely connected vignettes. Having spent the last five years in jail, Mark (played by Webber) tries to pick up the pieces of a life gone off the rails. Just how the thirty-something ended up behind bars for half a decade is unclear at the outset of the film and doesn’t really ever come to focus, although through a series of flashbacks we learn that alcohol and violence were determining factors – but that’s about as far into that mystery as the writer/director lets us get. Meanwhile, Mark is thrown back into his own real life mise en scene on the mean streets of Philadelphia. These elements include Mark’s mother (Cheri Honkala), a child of an abusive father who spent most of her teenage life in youth detention centers and now, years later, has a couple of kids, one ex-husband with a drug habit who’s trying to get sober while slowly dying from Hepatitis C, and a boyfriend who could only be described as a mother or child’s worst nightmare – depending on what side of the family arc you reside in.
Also on board are Mark’s former girlfriend, Madeline Brewer, who has a child from another lover (who is nowhere to be found) and who slips in and out of the story, both in real time and through flashbacks. Mark’s younger brother, Guillermo, a sweet looking kid with black curly hair and braces, suffers from Asperger’s syndrome and an overabundance of tenderness. Add his old gang – their business another mystery yet to be explained – as well as Mark’s missing dad (apparently, it’s been thirty years) who is himself flirting with the grim reaper and you’ve got the whole lot, for better or worse – which seems, as far as I can tell, the whole point. The characters do the best they can do under circumstances that include chronic unemployment, drug and alcohol addiction, and a general abuse and violence toward each other. Grim stuff, I admit.
While the mix of improvisation, reality and storytelling is a bold creative choice, Flesh and Blood suffers not from its desire to make things real by using real life situations, but by the elegance and facility of the director, Webber, his editor (Sven Pape), and most impressively, the film’s Director of Photography, Patrice Lucien Chocet. Chocet fills the screen brilliantly, relying on color as much as space and finding every drop of life in a lifeless tableau. I was really impressed and hope to see more of his work. Similarly, Webber is obviously a good director; his camera and his cuts make sense, his timing is spot on. Ultimately, it’s the talent that lies behind the camera that makes what’s in front of the camera so unsatisfying. But there are some points of light on performance side as well; Guillermo is an interesting presence, both as the innocent amongst the cynical and slightly dangerous, but also as a kind of Greek chorus – indeed his brother’s present of a new handy-cam begins yet a new narrative; a movie within a movie, directed by Guillermo. But it is this conceit that finally pushes this experiment over the top – at least for this reviewer. I was holding on pretty well for the first half hour of the film even while cinematically being forced to hang out with people I’d usually cross the street to avoid, but I began to lose my grip after one too many reaction shots managed to remind me that an actor’s work is to bring inner life to an expression, a skill that’s needed to tell a visual story and that’s why it’s usually a good idea to employ them. It became particularly noticeable during the many confrontations between Mark and his mother, Cheri, whose looks of helplessness and rage rang false. Apparently, Cheri Honkala was an actual vice presidential candidate for the Green Party in 2012 and has an interesting backstory, but the semi-fictionalization of her tale (told to Guillermo and his Handy Cam) comes off less as someone facing life’s adversity, than as an excuse for a life of bad choices.
In the end, Flesh and Blood isn’t a very successful film. In its attempt at verisimilitude within a semi-conventional narrative and dramatic structure, it falls in on itself and loses its purpose, ironically missing the bones to hold it up.
Flesh and Blood recently screened at the Philadelphia Film Festival prior to its limited theatrical release.
Dean Goldberg is an associate professor of communication arts and film studies at Mount Saint Mary College, a small liberal arts college in upstate New York. He spent more than half of his adult life as a film editor, writer and director and has, for the last fifteen years, been a full-time teacher. He teaches both production and film studies.