Soft for Digging (3½ stars)
Finishing off Madstone Theaters’ Film Forward Independent Film Festival are a couple of peculiar islands of thought — strange birds brought to lights, camera and action, and now on-screen May 29-June 11 in Ann Arbor.
Witness a visceral montage of footsteps crunching against the earth, burning eggs, the squeaking toy of a runaway cat, coffee perking on a hand-lit stove, and two small legs in black tights and black Mary Janes on two petite feet trembling midair over brown leaves, until they stop moving.
As a visual experience with next to no help from dialogue, Soft for Digging is like a lonely, recurring Jan Svenkmajer nightmare, but was actually made by a 20-year-old NYU student for his thesis project. Written and directed, edited and produced by J.T. Petty, the film was made on oxygen, a mere $6,000 and only a handful of dialogue. It’s unfortunate that Soft for Digging will be inevitably corralled into the horror genre, due to its cinematic-sure-thing or cop-out finale (depending on how you look at it) that leaves a gruesome aftertaste à la The Ring, because its strengths lie elsewhere.
Petty sections off the film with enigmatic literary headings such as “Chapter II: A brief encounter with a strange couple; the occurrence of a horrible thing.” The headings work in manufacturing a what will happen next anxiety, alongside Petty’s effective, inexpensive film techniques. Missing frames of movement, from mysterious to horrific pixilated figures and actions, hit you bang! bang! bang! like machine-gun shocks. And sped-up footage blurs, fuses and confuses what we see through the perspective of Virgil — an isolated old man.
Played by Edmond Mercier, fresh-out-of-bed Virgil stands in white long johns, his heavy torso, curved from the weight of a lifetime, wavering over too-thin legs. Because we’re forced to examine every visual nuance, we feed off emotions inherent in the shape and gesture of his body, as well as sounds, movements and colors. In a red robe, Virgil runs through barren gray trees; we listen to his heavy breath and the cracking earth; and we tap into the stark tension Petty paints in this richly visual character sketch.
Bunny is a different sort of nightmare of isolation, one all covered up in fluffy pink fur. When you begin a new life, some part of the old always has to die. But nothing could be worse than suffering through an explosive existence in the midst of a civil war, or could it? Luda (Petra Tikalova) and Nik (Edyk Dratver) have fled their war-torn Eastern European home for freedom in a new land, only to endure another more insidious type of oppression — trying to find a job.
Stressed with the need to survive, the couple’s once-loving relationship is stressed as well, until relief shows in the guise of a familiar face from the old country. Pecha (Eugene Alper) offers to talk to his boss, but warns them: The work is different from what they’re used to.
I’ll say. For her first feature film after earning her MFA in film direction at UCLA, Mia Trachinger takes a single image-idea — juxtaposing a distressed character with a soft pink bunny — and unfurls an exceptionally unusual, furry fable that creeps in under your skin while distracting you with cute and cuddly. Luda and Nik find themselves wearing pink bunny suits and hopping on gray street corners like living, breathing, stuffed animals. They become human comfort fetishes for the public.
In a taken-for-granted street spectacle, strangers complain to the bunnies, argue around the bunnies, stroking them for support, and use the fake fur shoulders to cry on like a worn-out favorite stuffed friend. While Luda takes to the suit, feeling a great sense of purpose, Nik feels emotionally impotent, unable to interact with his sidewalk therapy patients because of strict bunny regulations.
I guarantee haunting pink imagery from Bunny will slip snugly into your gray matter: rows of listless bunnies carted around inside sterile white vans; Luda’s switch from brushing her blond hair to lovingly brushing her pink ears; and especially Nik’s kind-yet-harsh swarthy face framed by bunnyness.
Dratver sucks you into his initial victim-of-a-bad-joke expression, then swirls you around inside the suit with him as he hops on concrete and watches the emotional freak show. Eventually, the only job he can find transmutes Nik into a helpless, hopeless and hopping compassionate mess, and leaves you wanting to hug the closest furry object while wondering which side of the bunny suit (in or out) is worse.
Showing exclusively May 29-June 11 at Madstone Theaters (Briarwood Mall, 462 Briarwood Circle, Ann Arbor). Call 734-994-1000 or see www.madstonetheaters.com.
Anita Schmaltz writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.