Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Princeton Holt's COOKIES AND CREAM.

Princeton Holt, a New-York-based director with whom I am acquainted via twitter, recently announced that his debut feature, Cookies and Cream, has been picked up by Celebrity Video Distribution. It'll be hitting DVD this July, and you might want to consider picking it up; a few words follow to try and sway you in that direction.

According to its synopsis, the film is about " a racially-mixed single mother who maintains an adult entertainment gig to take care of her daughter and herself", which sounds pretty salacious. What's most remarkable about the film is that it exhibits a tremendous amount of distance and restraint. By this, I'm not merely referring to the lack of nudity, sex scenes, and (for the most part) dirty talk-- though those decisions are interesting, commendable, and greatly undercut any nascent hints of tabloid sensationalism. What I'm talking about instead is formal distance and directorial restraint.

Holt seldom strives for effect or tries to punch it up. It's mock-verite/gonzo porn opening aside, there's thankfully very little of the deliberately ugly shaky-cam aesthetic that's infested the current American independent cinema. As I've written elsewhere, the shaky-cam approach is a schizoid one because it untethers its subjects from the everyday reality it so desperately wants to capture, presenting us not with people and bodies moving through time and space but with fractions of faces, headless slivers jittering about.

Cookies and Cream, in contrast, presents us with people, often head-to-toe, listening to and observing them patiently. Holt is so patient, in fact, and so confident that his characters will reward the viewer's patience, that he sometimes apes one of Woody Allen's best tricks by staging parts of his dialogue scenes with the actors out of the camera's range. Consider two frames from this minutes-long shot:

In the second frame you can see the two characters, but in the first, it seems empty, like one of Ozu's pillow shots (which were, of course, never truly empty). The two characters are in fact in the tunnel under the bridge, and as they talk with one another, they slowly worm their way out of it, slowly come into view, dots turning into people. Another director would have cut it much closer. A bad director might have framed the same shot but not given us characters worth looking for or dialogue worth listening to.

Holt's method suits his character. Carmen is played by Jace Nicole with a business-like distance and icy remove. She didn't fall into this career, I don't think, but rather planned on it with mercenary objectivity, counted out exactly how many days and how much money she'd need to do in order to create the life she wants for her daughter. This daughter, tellingly, is not on screen until almost the last scene in the picture. While you can pick up on Carmen's motivation fairly early on, by withholding the daughter's presence the film keeps us at the proper distance, keeps us interested in Carmen instead of merely rooting for her.

Because we never see her in any kind of sex act, there's really nothing carnal about this porn star: we don't get the mask, the persona. Or, rather, we get a different sort of mask and persona, as Carmen is always guarded, always wary of other people. There's a telling, painful moment in which she flinches when the man she's dating touches her face: gentle, intimate, warm. These aren't qualities she responds to. Even when she's talking to her daughter, when she explains to her that everything that she's doing is for her, it's presented logically, as an argument, as something intellectual instead of something emotional.

That last phrase could be used to describe the film as a whole, but with the caveat that there's a certain sadness that the film can register even if Carmen can't. And if this sounds like your cup of tea-- and I would say for the most part that it was mine-- you might want to keep an eye out for it this July. That's not to say that it's a perfect film-- for one thing, every time a character utters the film's tagline ("the show must go on") it manages to carry less resonance-- but it's an interesting and a promising one, a deliberately thoughtful film from a deliberately thoughtful director.

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