AFI FEST 2010
By Don Simpson | November 18, 2010
Director: Cam Archer
Writer(s): Cam Archer
Starring: Tiffany Anders, Ellen Barkin, Josh Blaylock, Luke Grimes
Shot on 16mm reversal film stock, Cam Archer’s Shit Year is a mind-blowing black and white experience akin to films of the 1960‘s avant-garde and Nouvelle Vague. The flighty non-linear narrative unravels with the logic (or lack thereof) of a drugged out surrealist dream.
Like a dream, Shit Year is difficult to recall in any sensible manner — especially nine days after the screening at the 2010 AFI Fest. Shit Year is presented as a series of thinly interconnected scenes, all of which involve Colleen West (Ellen Barkin). Present, past and future are hopelessly intertwined, as are fantasy and reality. (A ball of confusion, that’s what the world is today. Hey! Hey!) I know you would really like to see me try, but I am not even going to attempt to regurgitate the story in any sensible manner…
Colleen has retired from her acting career. She must come to terms with not working (“…a kind of death”; “It’s kinda like the end of everything and the start of nothing”; “I’m surrounded by a world of nothing”) and her quickly fading fame. She moves to a secluded rural cottage in a densely wooded area. Unfortunately, her reclusiveness is being disturbed by the near-constant noise of nearby development. At some point, she receives a visit from her brother (Bob Einstein)…he agrees that the noise annoys.
At an after-party for her final (I think) theatrical production, she commences a romantic relationship with a significantly younger co-actor, Harvey West (Luke Grimes). The fact that their last names are the same is, at least according to the narrator (Rickie Lee Jones), “perhaps the only thing they had in common.” Colleen and Harvey’s relationship then begins to deteriorate and Colleen spirals downward into a nearly impenetrable state of depression.
Things really start to get weird when we find Colleen sitting in a plain white room and she seems to be willfully participating in some type of virtual reality simulation. She is interviewed by Marion (Theresa Randle) — A doctor? A psychiatrist? An alien being? All of the above? — who really just wants to know what precisely makes Colleen tick. This sequence kind of sort of explains the blurring of reality in the other sequences; we might as well assume that some of the other sequences of this film are actually parts of this virtual reality simulation. Or not…
Shit Year is a stunning showcase for Barkin’s mad thespian skills as she portrays a fading, aging and increasingly disillusioned superstar in a story that unfolds via the unbridled imagination and highbrow cinematic conceits of writer-director Archer. As with much of David Lynch’s oeuvre, Hollywood is presented to us by Archer as a menacingly figurative state of mind rather than a tangible and coherent place. Barkin’s amazing performance recalls Mrs. Robinson from The Graduate and Norma Desmond from Sunset Boulevard and Archer blends Barkin’s unhinged rawness with the cerebral mind-fuck of his direction (which brings to mind Inland Empire, Mulholland Drive, Alphaville and Pi).
As with Darren Aronofsky’s Pi it is sometimes difficult to differentiate between artfulness and pretentiousness, and Archer’s film does tend to steer a little too far in the direction of “I don’t give a flying fuck” terrain. No matter how you feel about the “I don’t give a flying fuck” terrain of cinema (a style of filmmaking which I unabashedly adore), Shit Year is a transcendentally theatrical experience of sound and image. Archer and Jasper Bel pummel the audience with a magnificently harsh and jarring array of sounds which further expand the whole ball of confusion motif; while cinematographer Aaron Platt, on the other hand, reveals a keen eye for the tranquil beauty of the natural elements, playfully toying with the movement of water and wind.