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S E A R C H    D V D B e a v e r

(aka "Suicide Diaries (working title)" )

 

directed by Daniel Stamm
USA 2008

 

"Documentary Filmmaker looking for suicidal individual to follow from first preparation to final act," so says the banned Craigslist ad put out by documentary film student Gilbert Toma (G.J. Echternkamp, HARD CANDY) for his thesis film THE CHOICE for the Los Angeles Film Conservatory. The school will not okay the proposal, nor give him access to equipment (the now-impractical 16mm shooting gauge requirement was added to raise the financial stakes of the project), and his cameraman Michael (Michael Traynor) and sound mixer Valerie (Valerie Hurt, QUEENS OF COUNTRY) have misgivings about the project; however, Gilbert is convinced that he is onto something great and presses on. Having exhausted all donation resources, he turns to his mother to refinance her home. With his roommate Daniel (writer/director Daniel Stamm - glimpsed once in silhouette and heard offscreen - although the film was actually shot by Zoltan Honti, who would also photograph Stamm's THE LAST EXORCISM) documenting the shooting of his documentary, Gilbert interviews a number of subjects and selects Matt (Matthew Tilley), a young British immigrant who is dying from an incurable hereditary cancer that already took his father's life. Not wanting to put his mother (Pamela Salem, GODS AND MONSTERS) or stepsister Konima (Konima Parkinson-Jones, FREEWAY KILLER) through the pain again, Matt has decided to end his life before the debilitating pain sets in. As filming continues and the filmmakers get to know Matt (and vice versa), all parties begin to doubt that they can follow up on their ends of the project. The deeper entanglements and changing allegiances between the filmmakers and their subject spark jealousy and manipulations that ensure a tragic denouement.

"Found footage" and "faux-documentary" films are apt to end chaotically, but usually not before uncovering (or discovering) the sometimes immoral lengths its protagonists will go to in order to document their chosen subject. With a hipste-rish film student, his ex-lover, and a British guy who paints creepy abstract art and collects horror masks and medieval armor-piercing weaponry, director Stamm could have taken a much broader approach and ended up with a possibly entertaining but less interesting film. While found footage films purport to be complete or objectively distilled from a greater length of footage, faux-documentaries have an editorial perspective even as they try to create the illusion of objectivity. We see this in Gilbert’s “direction" of interviews with Matt (these “blown takes" are part of Daniel’s documentary, but would obviously not have appeared in Gilbert’s edited film) as he stops from suggesting that anything he does or says onscreen has been at Gilbert’s prompting. Stamm (both as director of the film and the documenter of Gilbert's film project) attempts to balance out Matt's creepiness with Gilbert's manipulative nature while also trying to balance out these individuals' characteristics with devices to other sides of them (Matt's video diary and the character Daniel being privy to Gilbert's personality outside of shooting).

A look at the deleted scenes included on the DVD edition of the film (the roughly 35 minutes apparently only a small sampling what was shot over the long production period since the filmmakers mention the existence of a four-hour version on the commentary tracks) reveals the extent to which all four of the principles’ characters were sculpted in the editing. Gilbert’s manipulative nature is played down. One deleted scene has Michael charging that Gilbert always looks for the middle ground in conflicts where he benefits on both sides, while another deleted scene features a solicitous “are you still going to commit suicide” phone message he leaves for Matt. Likewise, Matt’s social awkwardness is also downplayed including accounts of a non-existent girlfriend, and a deep, dark secret he feels compelled to make up so as not to seem boring to the filmmakers. What we get in the finished film is an interview with Matt’s supposed best friend who really does not know him at all outside of their poker games - which could just as easily suggest a delusional degree of narcissism on Matt’s part - and the impression that Gilbert is becoming his new best friend (not helped by the mixed messages sent to Matt by Val and by Daniel becoming his new confidante late in the film). Michael is more passive in the finished film. He blows up at Gilbert in a deleted scene when he believes the other man has manipulated Matt into choosing an alternate suicide method because the use of a gun might offend Texas affiliates of the TV station that wants to buy the documentary. He also seems less gullible in the deleted scenes, including one where he tells Daniel’s camera that that plot turns in the last section of the film have got to be coincidences because, if not, Gilbert’s actions are truly “fucked up.” Val seems least reshaped by the editing, manipulated and seemingly incredibly gullible - especially in the last act - but the implication in the deleted scenes that she might be complicit in Gilbert’s third act machinations is unconvincing and was wisely deleted.

Since the film was produced over a period of years without a script, Stamm and crew were able to shoot, discard, and reshoot scenes to this effect (including discarded bits that probably would not even have been considered with a reworked and revised finalized script) while also contending with continuity worries (including covering up radical changes in appearance and wardrobe), as well as fitting in new plot turns and subplot elements with the existing footage; and the final assembly is admirable. The periodic countdown suggesting that the documentary starts sixty-two days before the climactic event does take away from the suspense of scenes where Matt and the filmmakers explore suicide venues and methods, but the film's tightrope walk between sentimental drama and black comedy grips viewer focus (the characters' attempts to avoid awkward situations often results in even more awkward exchanges that further humanize characters who could conceive of and execute such a provocative documentary). The film’s chosen ending is more predictable - even without some foreshadowing in the deleted scenes - than the alternate one, but nevertheless effective and satisfactory. A NECESSARY DEATH will likely not spark a debate about suicide (and it’s really not supposed to); but, with the over-saturation of currently in-vogue “found footage" and faux-documentary films, viewers may find the film’s treatment of faux-documentary format and its challenges stimulating.

Eric Cotenas

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Theatrical Release: 8 March 2008 (USA)

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DVD Review: FilmBuff/MPI Media Group - Region 1 - NTSC

Big thanks to Eric Cotenas for the Review!

DVD Box Cover

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Distribution

FilmBuff/MPI Media Group

Region 1 - NTSC

Runtime 1:38:57
Video

1.33:1 Original Aspect Ratio

16X9 enhanced
Average Bitrate: ~7.4 mb/s
NTSC 720x480 29.97 f/s

NOTE: The Vertical axis represents the bits transferred per second. The Horizontal is the time in minutes.

Bitrate

Audio English Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo
Subtitles none
Features Release Information:
Studio: FilmBuff/MPI Media Group

Aspect Ratio:
Widescreen anamorphic - 1.33:1

Edition Details:
• Audio Commentary with director Daniel Stamm
• Audio Commentary with actors GJ Echternkamp, Valerie Hurt, and Matt Tilley
• 7 Deleted Scenes (16:9; 35:54)
• Alternate Ending (16:9; 3:39)
• Trailer 1 (16:9; 1:59)
• Trailer 2 (16:9; 2:35)

DVD Release Date: May 29th, 2012
Amaray

Chapters 12

 

Comments

MPI's dual-layered, progressive DVD frames the 1.33:1 film in a 16:9 palette. The blown-out highlights and aliasing of fine lines are appropriate to both the DV gauge of the film and the DV camera of the unseen filmmaker-within-the-film who is following the documentary filmmakers around. The 2.0 audio has a few musical (and other) outbursts, but is largely in keeping with the documentary concept (location audio with occasional added musical interludes.)

Two commentary tracks accompany the film, the first with director Daniel Stamm going solo and the second with the actor/producer GJ Echternkamp, actress Valerie Hurt, and actor Matt Tilley (Michael Traynor was not available for the session). There is some overlap, but both tracks are worth a listen because of all of the participants' heavy involvement in front of and behind the camera. Both address the continuity challenges of shooting over a long period, and the research that went into making Matt's illness convincing (without requiring an expensive make-up job), working around the legal gray area of the fictional film project, the unsung contribution of actual cameraman Zoltan Honti, and merging the acting styles of the more experienced supporting actors and the improvisational acting styles required of the leads. Stamm goes solo for the first track and reveals that the original title SUICIDE DIARIES was not well-received by the producers and that Echternkamp - a longtime AFI associate of Stamm's for whom the lead role was tailored - came up with the film's release title (Stamm also points out the ambiguity of the "necessary death" of the title). Stamm also gratefully mentions the important contribution of late casting director Mali Finn.

Echternkamp mentions an eight minute introductory sequence meant to cast his character in a more positive light that was cut for pacing (and the director's humorously more succinct alternative for it). He mentions that the scenes of Gilbert interviewing prospective subjects for the documentary were actually footage of the actor auditions (Tilley's interview was reshot when he was picked for the part). It is regrettable that some of the other auditions were not included in the deleted scenes section (including the roughly hour more of footage from the guy who showed up for the audition to berate Gilbert for condoning suicide). All of the participants mention the overlap between the lives of the characters and the actors, which extended sometimes beyond the use of owned props and wardrobe. The track is light and humorous but not distractingly so.

Seven deleted scenes are included. Some are extensions of sequences in the finished film, while others are self-contained sequences. It is apparent why they were filmed because of the loose construction of the film (as opposed to a fully revised script), but they are wisely deleted since some 1) make the protagonist seem even more calculating (what remains in the film is just ambiguous enough), 2) make some of the other characters seem either ridiculously gullible, and 3) too strongly foreshadow the climax as seen in finished film. A scene in which Gilbert visits Matt's doctor was unusable because they shot the scene with Gilbert consulting a lawyer with the same actor in the same office (rather than re-shooting the doctor scene with a new actor, they decided it was not really a necessary scene). The alternate ending is largely the same as seen in the final cut, but with one major difference which leads to a different coda. The deleted scenes and alternate ending are also presented in a pillar-boxed aspect ratio to preserve the 1.33:1 framing in 16:9. Two trailers for the film round out a satisfying package.

  - Eric Cotenas

 


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DVD Box Cover

CLICK to order from:

 

 

Distribution

FilmBuff/MPI Media Group

Region 1 - NTSC

 




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