Zero (DVD)

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Zero (DVD)

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Migrating Forms (DVD)

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Back Against The Wall (DVD)

Along the shelves that bridge two walls in a basement dwelling, with anatomical diagrams on one side and cut-out pornography on the other, sits a row of jars with various amphibians and other small creatures suspended in amber. These samples, seen in James Fotopoulos' harrowing first feature, 1997's Zero, are mainly a decorative touch, but they set the tone for his narrow, disturbingly obsessive view of human nature, which suggests the work of a young man who once toasted a lot of ants under a magnifying glass. Confined to the minimalist spaces of barren apartments and seedy bathrooms, Fotopoulos' characters live in jars, going about their mundane routines with no possibility for growth, only the promise of slow mental and physical deterioration. As in David Cronenberg's early horror films–which, along with David Lynch's industrial soundscapes, serve as the most obvious touchstones for Fotopoulos' work–their psychic scars are often manifested on their bodies, becoming grotesque monuments of their anguish. Collected in a new DVD package with few supplements, save for rough sketches and prop photos, Fotopoulos' first three features have a crude, DIY aesthetic that makes them all the more unsettling, like private tours through a mad alchemist's head. A precocious and prolific young talent, Fotopoulos started making Zero when he was 18 and finished three years later, having crafted a 142-minute opus that highlights his rigorous attention to structure and atmosphere, even as it points to his weaknesses for dull repetition and reductive human portraiture. Set mostly in a dank, windowless room lined with exposed pipes, the film centers entirely on Matthew Buckley, an unnamed loner who spends his days thumbing through porn rags, experimenting in amateur biology, and delivering poisonous monologues on women and minorities. As a gruesome cyst grows on his forearm, Buckley's intense alienation and vivid masturbatory fantasies lead him to court the "ideal woman," in the form of the upper torso of a store mannequin. Produced for next to nothing (the budget estimated in Fotopoulos' sketchbook is $541.85), Zero achieves most of its effects through the experimental ambience, which fuses Lynch-esque hums and buzzes with a music-box score, painted frames, and assorted editorial freakouts. But no amount of formal trickery can add another dimension to Buckley's transparent character, who withers over the course of a grueling, redundant eternity. More disciplined, though no less ambitious and challenging, Fotopoulos' 1999 follow-up Migrating Forms covers similar themes of sexual anxiety, paranoia, and existential despair, but shaves a full hour off Zero's running time. In a scantly appointed apartment, shot primarily in long takes from a single camera angle, Preston Baty and Rebecca Lewis engage in ritualistic sex that varies only in that it gets kinkier with every encounter, but their adventurousness doesn't bring them any more joy. Baty doesn't seem to notice the giant cyst on Lewis' back until she chomps on his shoulder in the throes of passion and a corresponding growth blossoms from under his bandage. In spite of the dreadful sound recording (the dialogue is barely audible, yet every small step on the hardwood floor pounds like King Kong), Migrating Forms gains a sad, hypnotic power from repetition, as each encounter brings a new set of horrific consequences. After the first two features and numerous shorts made him a rising star in underground circles, Fotopoulos produced the far more expansive Back Against The Wall, an intermittently engaging genre jumble that steers another dead-end relationship study into the bizarre world of "lingerie modeling" and low-level gangsters. Told in three loosely connected chapters, the story concerns attractive model Debbie Mulcahy, who leaves jealous middle-aged boyfriend Martin Shannon for a more caring young man (Michael Wexler) in hock to the mob. Her past catches up to her when she reunites with an old acquaintance (Ernie E. Franz) in a motel room, where an illness has cruelly mangled his face and body. With Back Against The Wall, Fotopoulos loses some of the control and tightly wound rhythms of his earlier features, but he also substantially opens up the possibilities, with more flavorful dialogue, a dark strain of humor, and sly twists on narrative convention. Even the nightmarish ending points to a new, more hopeful direction in Fotopoulos' work, which seems ready to progress down unpaved avenues.