J.P. Allen's Centaur (2011) is less a film than an intermedial experiment with the digital image. One could say it doesn't quite work as a narrative feature—whose conventions it, in fact, resists quite honestly—but it does succeed on its own creative terms, which lie somewhere between a theatrically staged recitation, a video diary, a tone poem, and a visual embrace of familiar Bay Area locations. Most importantly, it disregards the necessity of a big budget or a production crew to tell its story through admirably economic means and—with a one-week run scheduled in late March at Landmark's Lumiere Theater and DVD sales already in effect at Amazon—it confidently attests to the possibilities of regionalized independent filmmaking and distribution. It proves possible what might have been near to impossible in the recent past. I can't say Centaur is my cup of tea; but, neither can I dismiss it blithely. It warrants a considered response.
Centaur tells its story; it does not show it. That's hazardous territory for any film; but, Allen negotiates same by catering to the established convention of the narrative voiceover in classic noir films where psychological motivation alone provides narrative traction through audience identification with the narrator (who remains unnamed in Centaur). There's a pulpy cadence to Allen's script that—though far from naturalistic—has an ear for the hardboiled, which lends masculine credence to this particular "indie noir." This narrative voiceover is then laid upon an impressionistic visual track that combines rear view mirror footage of roadways crisscrossing the Bay Area and environs, a latticework of iridescent lens flares, sensual remembrances of the narrator's lost love (embodied by the voluptuous Amy Mordecai), flourishes with different focal lengths, switchbacks between color and B&W footage, and face frontal video confessionals. At its best moments, this combination of voice and image reminded me of Jenni Olson's award-winning The Joy of Life (2005)—with which Centaur shares an experimental pedigree—as both projects woo San Francisco for their contextual backdrop. One more layer is added to this already dense texture through evocative musical numbers by the Austin-based band Michael Slattery and Shoulders.
It is, perhaps, Centaur's strategic use of the straight-on video confessional that best situates my reluctance to categorize it as a film. That's not intended in any way to be a slight. In his production notes, Allen admits that—true to the narrator's assertion that he is making his video diary alone—the author likewise decided "to shoot the entire film without the help of production staff. All scenes were filmed by the author, alone, and / or created in the exact way the character would have filmed them and with the actual equipment the character would have used. The production process reflects, precisely, the script." In other words, Centaur never pretends to be more than a videotaped document; but it adds a poetic spin by having the narrator's videotaped document be a rhyme and response to a videotape made by his beloved before her untimely death. The fact that it asserts itself as a videotaped document means that Centaur falls within what Dave Kehr recently expressed to me in interview as a "post mise-en-scène" construction. That's to say that—though here and there Allen employs a skillful use of color and decor (the desktop sequence is rich in primary colors, for example)—all in all, Centaur bears the flatness of digital work and is primarily a performance-driven narrative; but, even that is not quite exact: it is a script-driven narrative. The close-up faces of the characters (and in the case of Jennifer, her body) are what are most expressive here, more than anything they actually do. In fact most of the action in Centaur has been abbreviated to mere suggestions of action.
This will work for some as much as it does not work for others; but, the Coffee and Language production ensemble strike me as upfront with their roots in theater and the written word and—by retaining an intimate play with same—continue a San Franciscan lineage of the spoken word and poetry in film. I applaud them for that.
Centaur's Landmark Theatre engagement begins Friday, March 23, 2012 at Landmark's Lumiere Theatre and continues through March 29. There will be a Special Opening Night Event on the 23rd with J.P. Allen and his cast attending, with music provided by local band McCabe and Mrs. Miller. There will then be a Special Second Night Event on the 24th where Centaur will be screened on a double-bill with an earlier Coffee and Language Production Sex and Imagining (2009).