US / 99 minutes / bw / Denver/Goines, Kuboa Dir & Story: Pablo D’Stair Pr: Lisette Goines, Denver Alexander Scr: Pablo D’Stair, Goodloe Byron Cine: Paul VanBrocklin (i.e., Pablo D’Stair) Cast: Carlyle Edwards (i.e., Pablo D’Stair), Helen Bonaparte, Goodloe Byron.
Director Pablo D’Stair (who is also Carlyle Edwards) tells much of the story of the making of this movie in a guest blog on one of Paul D. Brazill’s sites: “Some brief and freeform history of the making of A PUBLIC RANSOM.” In brief, D’Stair set out to use the absolute minimalist approach: no money (in the end he spent about $750), a tiny cast, the cheapest possible equipment and very little of it, no camera movement, no color, etc. There is in effect a larger cast than the three characters corresponding to the three actors listed above, but all of those others exist only as the unheard other ends of the frequent verbose cellphone conversations in which our main protagonist, Steven LaSalle (Edwards), participates.
Steven is a “writer”—which is to say, someone who talks a lot about himself being a writer and his writerly sensibilities, but who seems to do very little of the actual writing part and even less of the getting published. He is entirely narcissistic, entirely devoted to the cultivation of his self-image and the satisfaction of his every whim or desire. We are, throughout the movie, made to despise him more and more for his untrustworthiness, his duplicity, his faithlessness and his cowardice. The combination of Steven’s personality with all the technical limitations described above—plus the sometimes manifest amateur status of the actors—should make A Public Ransom painful to watch, but in fact the combination is oddly hypnotic.
Steven (Carlyle Edwards) has yet another of his phonecalls . . .
One night after he’s been thrown out by the wife off whom he’s apparently been sponging, Lisa, because of his adultery with someone called Deb, he comes across a poster done in a childish hand claiming that a child is missing and giving a phone number. Having found a temporary roost with old friend Rene (Bonaparte), Steven tells her the poster has given him the idea for a story: what if the poster has been placed by the child’s kidnapper and then someone—like himself—sees it and phones the number? Would that someone find himself on the receiving end of a ransom demand?
So he phones the number and speaks to a man who fixes up a meet with him. That man proves to be another writer, Bryant Kildaire (Byron), this time one who genuinely writes and gets published—and even has a novel to prove it, Animals and Their Antonyms, its cover bearing rave quotes from the likes of Bret Easton Ellis. Bryant claims he has genuinely kidnapped a small child, Claire Gowers, and gives Steven two weeks to come up with a ransom of a mere $2000. Somehow, for Steven, this becomes all about Steven, and he does zilch to save the child until finally, after Bryant claims to have slain Claire and framed her child-molesting uncle, Morton Scotch, for the crime, Steven scrounges $2000, too late, off the overly tolerant Lisa.
The official Missing Person advertisement.
By then Bryant has bedded Rene (or vice versa). Even though not in any kind of physical relationship with Rene, Steven is clearly jealous—leading to one of the movie’s best exchanges:
Rene: “You’re not sore because of Bryant, are you?”
Steven: “Not in the least.”
Rene (smugly): “Because I am.”
Far more significantly, it becomes clear to us that, while Steven thought he could use the poster as a kicking-off point for a story, in fact Bryant is using all the events and circumstances as the basis for his new novel, in which Steven is the central character. Bryant tells Steven this is a co-authorship and Steven, too craven for writerly recognition and fame to contradict him, accepts the situation—even promoting the pretense to legendary small-press publisher Philip Dross (by phone, of course) and heavily editing the text to which he has contributed nothing except his own detestable behavior. One definite improvement he makes is to the title, changing it from A Society of Fiends to A Public Ransom.
What editors do.
And so the tale rolls onward, with Steven locked into a perpetual downward spiral of vileness, until finally even Rene can’t stand him any longer . . .
D’Stair has written that A Public Ransom—which is filmed really more in black-and-sepia than black-and-white—is “visually inspired by the early films of Bresson, Fassbinder, and Jarmusch”; to this humble viewer it seemed visually more reminiscent of the cheaper end of the film noir canon: a PRC or Monogram outing, perhaps. The acting has some of the same caliber (although, because of the static camera, it must have been far more difficult than it might appear). Some of the scenes do seem to drag on far too long, like Steven’s first meeting with Bryant, his final row with Rene, and in particular a hallway conversation he has with Rene during which she spends interminable minutes adjusting and readjusting her headwear and coat rather than going out the door, which would have involved a change of camera setup.
Rene (Helen Bonaparte) and Steven (Carlyle Edwards) spend a long time trying to go out the door.
Those are the negatives. The positive is that, as noted, the movie as a whole is strangely engrossing. It’s helped along its way by a by-and-large very good soundtrack, good enough that for once I noted the song credits at the end:
- “Chumbawa” and “Midnight Blues” by the Detroit Cobras
- “Manager on Duty” and “Sadie” by Pedro Gonzalez-Fernandez
- “Whiskey C’est la Mort” and “Mayor Sally” by Goodloe Byron
- “A/Non-A”, “Pretty Piece/Disappear”, “Shooting an Elephant”, “Activate Your Cancelled Check”, “We Can Build You” and “We Are on Ghost Ships” by Bellflur
Movie’s official website: http://wp.me/4mug3
On Vimeo.com: https://vimeo.com/89132121