Ambition can have two, distinct and divergent effects on a film. Usually, goals of epic glory translate into big fat buckets of junk, either because the targets were beyond the artistic reach of the filmmakers, or the surrounding production restrictions stifle the proposed scope. The results are almost always laughable, usually unfathomable, and stink of aspiration's bothersome sibling – pretension. But there are occasions where desire meets determination, and instead of butting heads and causing chaos, they each acknowledge their limits and learn to co-exist. Under such a tentative treaty, perfection is usually unknown. Yet often, the flaws are forgivable, since the creativity circuit has been completed and everything is working toward, not against, a common objective.
Somewhere in the middle between these two ideals is Scooter McCrae's latest film, Sixteen Tongues. This is an attempt at grandiose filmmaking on a shoestring budget, a movie loaded with intriguing, if often incomplete ideas and imagery, forced into a single claustrophobic cost-cutting setting. For every powerful feature McCrae can manage under the circumstances, he finds ways to undermine his motives. Just when we think we are beginning to like this futuristic folly, the filmmaker turns approval into aggravation. As reprehensible as it is commendable, and constantly crossing the chasm between affectation and admiration, this is a difficult yet absorbing motion picture – which may have been the director's motive all along.
Adrian Torque is a rogue policeman with anger management issues. An explosion has left him scarred and half-dead, and the resulting skin graft, made from the sixteen tongues of his fellow victims, are a non-stop source of torment. Highly sensitive and seemingly haunted, the borrowed flesh messes with Torque's already psychic system, driving him to fits of uncontrollable ire. Oddly enough, while hiding out in a seedy hotel, he runs into a kind of genetic soulmate. Ginny Chin-Chin is a prostitute/assassin, tracking the sick scientist who made her the biological oddity she is today. Born to kill, and with a clitoris under each eyelid, the oversexed slayer lives a life of hyper-stimulated hatred. Under the care of hacker Alik Silens - who is herself looking for the cop who slaughtered her brother - Ginny is unhappy and restless. Adrian seems to provide the potent combination of power and blood that the deadly DNA diva needs. Too bad that his oral outer shell is driving him insane, placing the trio on a collision course towards another, more personal, apocalypse.
Sixteen Tongues is a hard movie to malign. It contains more originality, and more intensity in its bleak, ballsy 80 minute running time than most films can put forth in an entire series, or a single so-called epic. There is definitely a creative mind at work behind the scenes, someone who feels that they have something interesting and inventive to say about the heinousness of the human condition. This doesn't mean, however, that we've somehow stumbled upon an unsung masterpiece. There are far too many amateurish and overreaching moments in Sixteen Tongues, as well as a few outright fumbles, that keep the film from singing with sci-fi relevance. Instead, what we witness is an exceedingly ambitious bit of overreaching that never allows itself room to breath before it crams another inventive conceit down our craw.
Scooter McCrae, the writer/director of this fatally flawed journey into a futuristic Hell, may be familiar to those with a flare for low budget zombie flicks. His surreal 1994 living dead road movie Shatter Dead has a decent cult following, and he himself has acted in other outsider cinema like Tempe's Bloodletting (famed for its exploding infant) and the films of Kevin Lindenmuth (the Alien Agenda and Addicted to Murder series). One thing is for certain – the man has an imagination the size of a starship. Sixteen Tongues is infused with a real chaotic creativity, a convention-every-minute mindset that never seems to rest. Indeed, we as the audience have to play catch up a lot of the time, as McCrae is already six inventions, and 14 different variables ahead of us throughout most the film. Sixteen Tongues often plays like a peek inside the private world of the director's demented Id, a chance to witness what walks around and rots inside his crooked cerebellum.
But this also means there is a layer of insularity here that keeps us at a little more than arms length. When we have to work to understand the basic facets of the society we are tossed into, and are left to dangle with incomplete clues and half-baked explanations, fascination can turn to frustration very quickly. McCrae tries to prevent this. He employs several solid dramatic pauses, sequences when all the tech speak stops and the characters merely meditate on their life. While these scenes are effective, the filmmaker just can't leave well enough alone. So along with the soul searching, we also get irritating, almost unbearable voice-overs, screeds purporting to be the individual's inner monologue. But since these self-heard soliloquies only muddle an already muddy image, the result is something incredibly aggravating. Just like those times when you wish your brain would shut down so you could THINK, McCrae keeps up the chatter, ruining his one chance at letting us comprehend his world.
Another greatly irritating aspect of the film is its cyberpunk storyline. While one could argue that every other Japanese movie hitting the market today centers on how technology and sex eventually meld into a futuristic perversion more nauseating than enigmatic, Sixteen Tongues tosses logic and science out the window for the sake of sleaze and shock. We are supposed to be offended when Adrian's genetically engineered dong delivers a money shot of blood, not ball broth. Ginny's clitoral eye issues have a nice, almost acceptable explanation, but they're often discussed in teasing, not pleasing fashion. As for Alik the Hacker, her perversion is kept as McCrae's private secret. While we can glean from the scenes that she enjoys electrocuting herself so she can project her inner weblink to wherever her lover Ginny is gyrating, the reason why this works, and what it does for her physically - beyond the obvious voltage boogie - is baffling. Indeed, a great deal of Sixteen Tongues' more outrageous aspects are left as unanswered issues. They are meant to mean more than they actually represent. Without the context necessary to appreciate them, however, it's all geek show chic.
Hardcore sex is also a sticking point in this film, a facet that fails both as a milieu, and in the make-up of movie mise-en-scene. McCrae is either captivated by smut, or he thinks that the natural evolution of the Internet will lead to a social order bathed in XXX irony. Only problem is, the filmmaker doesn't properly craft this new future f*ck film mystique. Instead, he relies on cheap photoshoped images of sexual outrage to prove his prognostication. Aside from how fake these sounds and images appear, their constant use – as backdrops, as insert footage, as ambient noise – can and will drive an erotica fan to rehab. The breasts and boner bombardment is continuous. And if McCrae thinks he's hiding the penetration and the particulars from prying, underage eyes, he is sadly mistaken. The mild blurring used merely turns the acts into pixelated porn, and combined with the constant nudity of the cast and the random perversion placed in the narrative, we sense that this is nothing more than research into the ribald for our director.
One of the few salient aspects of the film is its acting. Jane Chase (as Ginny), Crawford James (as Adrian Torque) and Alice Liu (as Alik) do a more than commendable job of breathing some authenticity into this often extreme bit of experimentation. James is actually a little more mannered than his female co-stars, seeming to take an unnecessary inner beat before blurting out his macho bullshit. Chase is the real revelation here, playing a kind of robotic sex doll suffering from some naughty nervous exhaustion (she later explains that every time she blinks, she orgasms). While Liu does a remarkable job with what is a gravely underwritten role (her individual subplots are woefully unfocused), Chase literally saves Sixteen Tongues. Had another actress been placed in the role, perhaps one with James's hamfisted facets, or Liu's lack of layering, the film would have been unwatchable. Instead, Chase's Ginny keeps us jacked in, wondering exactly how all this hardcore hokum will finally pay off.
The answer, sadly, is less than impressive. Taken as a whole, Sixteen Tongues is fascinating as an idea, less than successful as a storyline and more or less a failure as a film. McCrae's direction is too scattered, mixing media and ideas into a 'too many cooks' concept of cinematic stew. Had he cut back on the porn, fleshed out the environmental issues (a single setting may seem claustrophobic – and work well for budgetary reasons – but it gets old quickly) and really defined his details, we could have had one of those real independent rarities. Sixteen Tongues could have been a homemade movie that transcended its restrictions to sore on a puff of pure unrestrained imagination. This film, however, suffers from too many ideas, haphazardly managed. Some may warm to its obvious ingenuity. Others will just think it's crap.
Amazingly, Sixteen Tongues looks extremely good for a low budget, shot on video project. The 1.33:1 full screen image is colorful, lacking in significant defects, and showing only slight grain, usually in the darkest sequences. McCrae has a real knack for interesting compositions and framing, and the artistry of the images really comes through on this transfer. It is easy to envision the optical wonders this director could devise with a larger budget.
One of Sixteen Tongues most striking – and troublesome – aspects is its incredibly glum score, filled with wonderfully evocative ambient music and tension twisting sound design. If you can get into the Tangerine Dream dynamic of the keyboard canoodling, you'll be rewarded with a moody and atmospheric gem. If however, the constant machine-like hum and random porn noise nuances grate on your nerves, you'll have a lot of shredded ganglion by the end of the film. The Dolby Digital Stereo recreates this clever yet concerning cacophony in aural excellence. From a purely technical standpoint, Sixteen Tongues looks and sounds polished and professional.
Sub Rosa Studios also does a marvelous job of fleshing out the DVD presentation, offering up two commentaries, an isolated audio track, a collection of interesting featurettes and some scandal raising packaging. Fans of the film will want to look for the "limited edition" version of the title. You'll know you've found it when you see the hardcore poster art used in the film covering the actual disc itself. Sub Rosa received complaints (probably from rental outlets) and yanked the DVD off the market, to replace it with a less controversial cover. Only 1,000 of the XXX bad boys exist.
As for the alternate narrative tracks, we get two different sides of the Sixteen Tongues coin here. McCrae is joined by producer Alex Kuciw and set designer Dan Ouellette for the first discussion, and it is the far more colloquial, anecdotal conversation. From casting to creating the pornographic imagery, the guys have a ball gossiping about and glorifying their efforts. Kuciw described many of the little fires he had to put out during production (like security guards who wanted a free show every time there was nudity on the set) while Ouellette laughs about his first attempts at photoshopping. McCrae is jovial and pointed, taking sci-fi and horror fans to task for not being more accepting of new ideas, as well as lamenting some of the location problems he had to face – namely, the stifling August heat. The second track, with McCrae and Kuciw only, is far more production-oriented. Acting like a quasi-moderator, the producer grills his director over storyline, characterization and underlying themes. While it occasionally gets bogged down in self-absorbed mental masturbation, there is still a lot of independent filmmaking information to be found here.
The rest of the content is clarifying and engaging. We catch a glimpse of how the movie was made during the behind the scenes featurette (which, oddly, is combined with some rather fun outtakes). Crawford James is shown going through the rigors of latex appliance placement in the makeup short. The movies last minute CGI inserts (representing the future Web and some minor clean-up work) are part of the Visual Effects feature. Along with a few deleted scenes (complete with text screens explaining why they were removed) and a collection of trailers, this is a finely fleshed out digital package, something we've now come to expect from Sub Rosa.
Films like Sixteen Tongues make a critic's job tough. On the one hand, you recognize the talent involved and the risks taken, and realize that lovers of outsider cinema may really appreciate what director Scooter McCrae brings to the table. Add in the excellent DVD packaging and wealth of contextual bonus material, and a recommendation is basically a no-brainer. But on the other hand, this is far from a perfect film, a strange combination of ideas and irritations that tend to cancel each other out, entertainment wise. When viewed through such a jaded veil, a rental reality makes the most sense, as the lend/lease pricing allows the mistakes to become that much more palatable. Either way, Sixteen Tongues is worth your consideration, and not just because it overdoses on the prurient imagery. McCrae and his cast have formulated an ambitious, if often artificial, cinematic experience. How you relate to it will come mostly from your desire to get lost in its perverse parallel universe. If hardcore hinders you, however, this may turn out to be a very maddening movie experience. McCrae is not about to make things sparkling and simple. His world is complicated, and more than a little unclean – just how you might feel after watching it.
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