September 15, 2002 -- "Tape" is another interesting avant garde film from the director of "Waking Life." Shot on a low budget and on a short schedule with digital cameras, it is part of a new wave of low-cost independent films. It makes up for its low cost and minimal set (a single hotel room) with searing emotional intensity.
Ethan Hawke ("Training Day") stars as Vin, a slacker who travels to Michigan to see an independent film directed by an old friend of his, Jon Salter (played by Robert Sean Leonard of "Driven"). The two meet at Vin's hotel room. Vin is drunk and high on drugs. Jon rags on Vin for being such a slacker (he's a dope dealer) and Vin retaliates by questioning Jon about allegations that he raped a girl named Amy Randall in high school, who just happens to have been Vin's girlfriend. Vin skillfully maneuvers Jon into admitting that it was a date rape.
Later, Amy shows up at the hotel (Amy is played by Uma Thurman of "The Golden Bowl"). The fireworks start when Vin confronts Amy and Jon about the fateful night of the rape 10 years earlier. What happens next is not what Vin expected at all. The film, based on a play written by Stephen Belber (who also wrote "The Laramie Project") is very much about sexual role playing and the empowerment of those who refrain from playing those games. So many films are misogynistic. It is a pleasure seeing one with a strong woman character. The film is emotionally very intense, but it has refreshing moments of humor as well. Hawke is excellent, while his real life friend Leonard comes off acting a lot like Kevin Kline. Thurman, who arrives in the third act, is very powerful in her pivotal role.
Although the film is based on a play, and it has a one-room set, it does not seem too stagey. Perhaps the reason for that is because a lot of camera angles are used in the film and that is possible because the cameras are so small. Unlike a regular set, none of the walls are removed for camera placement. All four walls are there, so you know right were the camera is in the room in every shot. In a number of conversations, the camera sweeps back and forth to follow the conversation. Ordinarily, those camera sweeps would be edited out. In this film, many of them are left in. The camera motion is unnecessary, districting, and it keeps the viewer at arms length from the film experience. Maybe the camera sweeps were left in the film to show the versatility of the digital cameras themselves, since the film was partly funded by a camera company. Another reason for this particular editing decision has to do with the use of the camera for point-of-view shots. In one scene, Vin throws a beer to Jon. A hand flashes in front of the camera to catch the can. Basic point-of-view.
There were several weeks of rehearsals before filming began, according to screenwriter Stephen Belber. In the room, cameras were stationed in one or two areas, then periodically the cameras would be moved to other parts of the room to get more angles and different perspectives on the room. Director Richard Linklater himself was a camera operator on this project. Because digital cameras can produce a vast quantity of images very cheaply, many hours of images were shot. This really didn't slow down shooting all that much, but it did make editing more time-consuming because there was so much more footage to go over.
The result? The image quality is inferior to film and the lighting wasn't as good as a normal set. The lighting was meant to be natural, but it seemed too dark. I saw this as a large screen video projection at a film festival. Sound quality was a little off, too. Overall, however, it is a good film because of good performances and solid writing. Because of the small set, the deficiencies of digital film in this case were not a problem. However, the state of the art in digital films is advancing very fast. "Spy Kids II" was a digital film and it did not look like one at all. "Tape" rates a B.
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