When most film fans hear the words "experimental" and "independent" in the same breath, the bad movie warning lights usually go off inside their head. Nothing gives off the potent reek of self-indulgent claptrap quicker than an avant-garde offering from a first time filmmaker. Usually so enamored with their cinematic heroes that they can't tell the difference between a direct rip-off and homage, their desire to endlessly reference their idols usually indicates a dearth of original ideas inside. One has to admit though that Troma's track record with titles like this is pretty good. Over the course of their DVD distribution life, they've given us Superstarlet, A.D., Beg!, Viral Assassins and the sensational surrealism of Guiseppe Andrews. Now comes the rather oddly titled Dumpster Baby. The brainchild of writers/directors James Bickert and Randy Hill, this exploration of the sinister social substrata simmering underneath our otherwise everyday existence is like David Lynch meshed with Richard Linklater. While it's far from perfect, it is still a fascinating, flawed cinematic journey.
Two crack whores are getting high when the overweight addict suddenly realizes she's giving birth. She has to get rid of the child or her drug dealer boyfriend will kill her. She gives the fetus to her friend, who tries to get rid of it. A local gang member rejects her offer, and she ends up placing the infant in a dumpster. From there, it finds its way into several differing hands, including a college student, a mentally retarded groundskeeper, a group of addle adolescents and a young girl who anguishes over a recent abortion. All the while, a black-hatted figure in a flowing cape is tracking the child, attempting to abduct it for unknown purposes. Eventually, a pair of teen paramours runs afoul of the infant's fate, and it's not long before the police - and a cannibal - are involved. All the while, our unseen infant is carried and cuddled, a catalyst for some, a curse for others. Eventually, the baby finds its way onto a desolate beach, where a bum provides a soliloquy to aging. And still, the man in the hat and cape keeps coming...
Dumpster Baby is a very interesting movie - not quite good enough to be a minor masterpiece, but far more polished than your standard independent idiocy. Using a vignette-like style to show how individual lives are connected on even the most superficial and inconsequential of levels, filmmakers James Bickert and Randy Hill have delivered a disturbing, homage-laden love letter to the directors who drive their vision, while providing a few effective illustrations of their own auteur ambitions along the way. Running the gamut from Italian splatter to mild Americana, and all points in between, this peculiar pair walks the fine line between exaggerated and enlightened so well that you don't know whether to dismiss their movie outright, or champion it as a sort of middling magnum opus. Like a Southern Gothic stoked in the fires of Hell, this scattershot statement to death and despair kind of plays like Richard Linklater's Slacker gone sour and very strange. Yet if one looks beyond all the reel world referencing and rates this film on its own facets, untold delights - as well as a few fabulous flops - will unfold before your eyes.
Dumpster Baby plays like an allegory gone AWOL. Sort of a backward illusion to the famous Infant of Prague legend (a statue of Baby Jesus that supposedly affects those who come in contact with it), our title tot, never seen until the final sequence in the film, is a defining and corrupting catalyst in the lives of several divergent individuals in and around Atlanta. The child has no choice in the matter - there is something almost mindlessly magical about the way people are drawn to and "adopt" this swaddling orphan. As a result, you just know that the filmmakers are attempting a kind of redemption via biology. Yet this movie is not really coherent enough to bring all these differing storylines together. We sympathize with the picked upon retard, and grimace as the angry ex-student blackmails her professor with the babe. The three teenage boys who spend a difficult night growing up in the shadow of the child's cries, to the cannibal who can eat a mechanic but won't dare touch the tot, all reflect something surreal and special about this aborted birth. Yet we never get the big picture. Even with an ethereal figure walking into scenes with his groovy grim reaper routine, we don't know if Dumpster Baby is supposed to be about the end of life, the beginning of existence, or something else all together.
Sadly, Bickert and Hill aren't saying. They're too wrapped up in the sprawling visual element of this film to really care. That being said, Dumpster Baby has a wonderful ethereal quality to its cinematic style, an evocative attempt at making everyday events seem strange and unreal. Granted, many of their labors are kind of obvious. When a geeky newsstand employee "buys" the baby for a rare comic book, we sort of get the joke. Naturally, he's some manner of Satanist and the whole sequence suddenly morphs into a riff on Pulp Fiction with a fetus at the forefront. There are several other scenes like this - the cabin in the woods where the whack-job local legend takes his victims to be vivisected (shades of a certain F. Krueger here), the seemingly friendly van that ends up being a sex slavery nightmare. While individually interesting, they don't forward the overall narrative. Why this baby had to be "dumped" is clearly spelled out, but why it seems to instigate people into acting out in very hurtful, vindictive ways is never really discussed. Even at the end, when the child has been rescued and taken to a wayward beach, its importance is never clarified. If the point is that new life trumps old, or that any manner of natural rebirth (even one that might not be viable) should be protected or preserved, Bickert and Hill don't provide it. Like a raucous Rosetta Stone where you can import your own interpretation, this film is very open ended - way too much so, frankly.
And this is the reason it's so irritating, as well as why it's so winning. Certain audiences do enjoy the challenge of discovering the meaning of a movie all on their own. For those, Dumpster Baby will be divine - up until the ending. Then they may end up as confused as those who want everything spelled out in plain moviemaking platitudes from the very beginning. Indeed, had it found a way to gather in all the errant and entertaining threads and pull them into a cohesive, considered whole, Dumpster Baby would truly deliver. Many of the performances are polished and professional, and Bickert and Hill sure have an aesthetic appeal to their lens. But something keeps scuttling this film, making it work harder than it has to and pushing into places it shouldn't, or couldn't go. In the end, we aren't happy so much as intrigued, left scratching our already sore head in weirded-out wonderment as to what this could all mean. If they could provide a key, a single hint that harkens back to a significant moment in the movie, we might be able to draw the conclusion for ourselves. But Dumpster Baby isn't cooperating. Instead, it wants to stay shut up and insular - and such an approach will not win over a mixed-up mainstream moviegoer. While the journey is genuinely interesting along the way, this film is too forced to be fun, yet too proficient to be ignored.
Mixing mediums and stock elements, this mostly filmed movie (with some digital inserts added in for effect) looks great. The 1.33:1 full screen image is expertly lit, framed with careful consideration, and offers up a combination of mostly correct colors and discernible details. Sometimes, the film looks fabulous, expressing the epic ideals the directors were driving at. At other times, the picture looks horribly homemade. Such a combination actually works with a film like Dumpster Baby. We can merely chalk it up as an artistic decision and move on.
Here is a HUGE CAVEAT for anyone intrigued by this movie: THE SOUND HERE IS HORRIBLE. The dialogue is almost impossible to decipher and there are several moments where the movie delivers no aural elements at all. While this could be an individual issue with the disc this critic received to review, all possible purchasers should be warned. Troma has a sketchy history with Dolby Digital Stereo remastering to begin with. Dumpster Baby is their worst, most wasted effort by far. The sonic situation here is atrocious.
Aside from a rather funny anti-France intro from Troma titan Lloyd Kaufman, and a full length commentary by members of the crew, the added content on this DVD is rather limited. Sure, we get a lot of the same corporate shilling from the Indie film giant (including a front end trailer for Poultrygeist that you have to fast forward through), but sadly, nothing here helps explain the film. Not even the alternate audio track. Discussing Dumpster Baby are James Bickert, Randy Hill, cinematographer Bill Burton and crew person Lynn Taylor. All four individuals are quite talkative, but not about the ultimate message of this movie. Instead, we get an anecdotal walk through personal proclivities, actor's hygiene and the various technical tortures they all had to go through to make this motion picture. While some explanation would be nice (as well as a little less drinking - the beer cans pop with regularity throughout the conversation), this is still a genial, interesting discussion about the ups and downs of the outsider cinema scene.
Since there is more here to like than despise, Dumpster Baby will earn an easy Recommended rating. Fans of experimental, oddball offerings will definitely cotton to the creative chaos carved out by James Bickert and Randy Hill. Had it been more of a controlled confusion, the film would definitely receive higher marks. Maybe one of the reasons this critic couldn't figure out the film was because the sound was so poorly presented. Maybe with all the dialogue intact, and the various foley elements secured, some of what goes on here could be deciphered. As it stands, muddled aural aspects and all, this is still an appreciable effort. Bickert and Hill have done their homage homework and delivered a film that sings the praises of all those who inspired their efforts. Yet you can just tell that Dumpster Baby wanted to be more than an influence-checking production portfolio. There is a meaningful message here about life, death and despair. Too bad it is lost in conversation dropout and incomplete ideas. For what it is, Dumpster Baby is very good. WHAT it is, though, is anyone's guess.