Yeah, yeah, one of the weakest techniques to describe a movie is to compare it to a different movie, but I dare anyone to watch director / writer / actor George Griffith's micro-budget feature From the Head and not think of Kevin Smith's debut feature Clerks. Both also take place in a single location, focusing on a man who rarely ventures outside of the single environment in which the film is set. Both are driven by the crowd of unusual characters that pass through. Both are heavily autobiographical. Both are even set in the mid-'90s, if one figures Clerks. is set when it was shot. The only things missing are the goofy one-word "chapter" titles and black-and-white cinematography.
"Shoes" (Griffith) is a bathroom attendant in a low-rent strip club. He's good at his job, which ranges from cracking jokes and making conversation to selling candy to patrons and providing "valuable" marriage-saving advice, and all the employees and many of the customers are familiar with him. Tonight, Shoes' mind is drifting a little: one of the girls says it's Shoes' third anniversary working for the club, and word drifts into Shoes' bathroom via the customers she mentions it to. Unaware he had spent so much time there, he starts to wonder as the night goes on whether he's allowing his life to slip away soaping people's hands in a dingy bathroom for tips just so he doesn't have to work a "regular" 9-5 job.
Although financial reasons obviously lead to the script's limited scope, it's hard for a film by a director / writer, especially an autobiographical one, and especially one in which that same director / writer plays the central character, to not at least suggest ego. Even if the filmmaker's intentions are as altruistic as artistic ventures go, it's still basically an assertion on behalf of that person that their personal stories, delivered mostly by themselves, with little to no fanfare, are all it will take to sustain an audience's interest for 90 minutes. For many, this is a gamble that does not pay off: nothing is worse than watching an "auteur" stumble through their own overwritten monologues, shot on a DV camera.
Thankfully, Griffith's script and performance are pretty low-key. Although he injects a measure of film noir flavor to the film, thanks to his vintage dress and penchant for lingering shots of cigarette smoke, his character Shoes is a grifter, not a loudmouth, which requires subtlety and finesse. For five minutes at a time, he works over each patron, trying to use his words to convince the customer that his services are worth a couple extra bucks. Griffith also takes some of the spotlight off of himself by loading the film up with a laundry list of cool character actors (James Urbaniak, Giuseppe Andrews, Ahna O'Reilly), established veterans (Jon Polito, Jack Conley, Peter Jason), and even a name actor or two (Matthew Lillard). Impressively, even shockingly, not one of these brief guest stars overplays their hand, content to play their everyday characters accurately.
Despite a very limited number of angles and space, Griffith manages to keep the bathroom visually interesting throughout. Of course, being the men's room, 95% of the characters are male, and being a strip club, many of them have less-than-progressive things to say about wives and girlfriends. It fits with the environment, but it makes Griffith's multiple shots of anonymous topless girls in the club feel unnecessary (at one point, a stripper comes over to the bathroom door just to show Shoes her new breast implants). More importantly, Griffith's decision to underplay the story in addition to the script and performance is a mistake: the arc that Shoes goes on is so small as to practically be invisible. It's hard to say how he would've integrated more of it, or how much more it would've added to the film, but without a stronger thread running through all the stories, From the Head is just a series of vignettes, arranged in chronological order, which don't build to anything in particular -- a successful, but not resonant experiment in limitation.
The DVD, Video and Audio, and Extras
The screening-only copy received was simply a DVD-R in a white sleeve with a heavily compressed image, so only the feature presentation can be considered here. The final edition should contain 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen video, Dolby Digital 5.1 audio, and an audio commentary by director / writer / actor George Griffiths.
Although the pleasures of From the Head aren't deep (like the punny title -- zing!), the film's still easy to recommend as a performance piece packed with excellent miniature performances.
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