Thursday, November 19, 2015

Cult-Movie Review: The Frame (2015)

[Watch out for Spoilers]

The Frame (2015), from director Jamin Winans, is a beautifully-realized science fiction picture with a powerful spiritual component. In short, the movie is a mind-bender about the nature of human life, and one strongly in the spirit of Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone (1959 – 1964).

The Frame is genuinely affecting in terms of its imagery, often cryptic in terms of its meaning, and at some points even terrifying, particularly in its depiction of a tatty, top-hatted Devil.

Good, original, non-franchise science fiction movies are few and far between these days, so The Frame – with its meditations on the nature of reality, and God -- is a special treat for the cerebral-minded fan. While, the film is a bit slow-paced at points, particularly near the denouement, The Frame is absolutely worth your investment in time and energy.

“We’re tested, so we can look through the eyes of God and see what he sees.”

Alex (David Carranza), a lonely orphan looking to escape a life of crime, plans to participate in one last heist before his escape.  

At the same time, a beautiful but isolated EMT, Samantha (Tiffany Mualem), attempts to deal with violence on the job, and a parasitic mother.

These two lost individuals encounter each other, but in an odd and unexpected way. Samantha watches a TV series, now in its fourth season, Thieves and Saints, featuring Alex as its main character.  Alex watches Samantha on her own TV show, Urban Hope.

One day, Alex and Samantha connect -- across their television sets -- and realize that they exist in parallel realities, but that they can nonetheless help and support one another.

Unfortunately, another “actor” seems to exist in their worlds too, a tatty: mysterious figure bent on “melting” reality and bringing it to an end.

When Alex is injured on his final caper, Sam attempts to rescue him, and must evade the Devil (Christopher Soren Kelly) and unmask the true “author” of reality.

“It was then that man realized he was no man, but a thing. Written by a malevolent God.”

In The Frame, something magical and unexpected happens: two lost, lonely people discover that characters on TV shows are not mere fictions, but characters leading their own lives in their own version of reality.  The TV “frame” is a window into that other-world.

This unique concept brings up several ideas that recur through the film. The first is that, perhaps, when we are lonely, we can feel a bond with someone who isn’t real.  

Consider, for example, the uproar over Glen’s fate on The Walking Dead.  Nobody who watches the show really knows Glen in reality, and yet audiences love him, and fear that he could die.  These fans have connected to a person who, simply, doesn’t exist.  There’s nothing wrong or unhealthy about this.  This is the glory of television and film as art forms; they allow audiences to experience empathy with those we have never met; with those confined to the world inside the TV frame.

But what happens when you fantasize a relationship with a TV character, and that fantasy talks back to you?  That is but one question raised by The Frame.

But The Frame’s core idea goes even deeper than this theme might imply.  The movie suggests that our lives are but TV programs that God watches, sometimes with avid interest; sometimes not so much.  

Like Alex, we could each face cancellation -- or a series finale -- at any point.  We might be destined to last, like Thieves and Saints, for just “four seasons” before God cancels our story line.  As audience members watching television, we don’t control the fates of characters we love.  They might unwittingly attend the Red Wedding, or get eaten by Walkers.  In their universe, God chooses their end, and we but have to watch, and then mourn.

Our universe -- our reality -- is quite similar, after a fashion, The Frame suggests. God chooses our story arc, and even our ending too.  Alex rebels against this idea in the film.  “This is chaos. This is not a story,” he observes.  

Sam answers his charge well:. “I don’t think this is chaos. I think you have to believe everything is chaos, or everything is a miracle.

Her answer suggests that an order exists to our lives, but that we can't necessarily see or understand that order. Nonetheless, we should try to accept that the order is there. It is present.  Sam chooses that course; that belief system.

Throughout the film, we get hints of this notion as The Frame’s primary leitmotif, of our lives as God’s TV programming.  Early on, for example, there is a shot of Sam looking into a fish bowl, watching her pet fish swim about.  The fish is contained within a frame too, and a force outside it -- Sam, herself -- holds the key to its survival or death. She is the "God" in its reality, or universe.

Several times throughout the film, Winan’s camera pushes in towards Alex (sometimes sleeping, sometimes just standing, observing a metropolitan skyline…) and then retreats.  It rocks forward; and then rocks back.  

This repetitive, unusual motion suggested to me that we can only approach knowing another human being, like Alex or Sam, and that at some point that knowledge stops. We hit an invisible wall (or the screen of a television, iPhone, laptop monitor, what-have-you.) 

We might dwell in the same world, but we gaze out at that world through different frames, different reference points and different eyes.

The film proposes two opposing forces in reality.  

One is the writer/God: the one bent on creating destinies and watching them unfold.

The second is the destroyer of worlds/Devil, the one who blots out life with bursts, literally, of black ink.  The Devil refuses to live God's destiny, and so sets out to destroy God's worlds.

If one chooses to read or interpret The Frame as a demonstration of the creative, artistic mind and its operation, the underlying idea becomes plain.  One on hand, writers create and give life to characters, locations, and ideas.  On the other hand, the writer can take away life from those things.  The writer, imitating God's reality, must act as both the divine and the diabolical.

When “God” is revealed in the film, it is shown to be a typewriter; one clacking away the final chapters of Alex’s life in his particular universe. This denouement reminded me of a Night Gallery (1969-1973) episode called “Midnight Never Ends,” in which two characters come to realize they are but words on paper; people imagined by a distant -- and not always loving -- writer.  The sound they keep hearing in the distance belongs to a typewriter too. 

The Frame discusses, at one point, a “malevolent” God, and that description is apt if you consider creation, life and death.  The divine might be said to thread all those elements together. Philosophically, it might be termed a life-giver and a life-taker.

None of us lasts forever. We are victimized by what seem, from our limited perspective, random and uncaring forces. We don’t know when -- or how -- our end will come.

We rage against these ambiguities, these unknowns, and attempt to push out the boundaries of our worlds, seeking answers in philosophy, or religion, or even life-prolongation. In the film, such attempts are visualized, cunningly, as Alex trying to push his way out of a rectangular film frame. 

The film frame keeps pushing back.

He can only be what he is supposed to be; only live the life that the writer -- or God? -- has selected for him.  He can push at the edges, but he is what he is: a being trapped by the Physics of the writer’s world, or perhaps, the writer’s imagination.

The Frame is a clever film, and one that is beautifully-made.  Some of the compositions practically ache with feelings of loneliness and isolation. Others are filled with portents of dread. Watch in several shots -- virtually unnoticed by the characters -- as skyscrapers, ceilings, and cars begin to melt away, unwritten from reality. They are symptoms of a dying world.

And when we die in real life, don’t our individual worlds, our individual “series” die with us? Lost forever when our eyes close for the final time?

I commend The Frame for its beauty, its intelligence, its high concept, and its imagination. I love how it equates God with the act of writing: a bloody act of willing something, or someone, into creation. 

However, I would also point out that The Twilight Zone, or Night Gallery, even, tells stories that last twenty-two minutes, tops.  Why? It is really, really tough to keep a high-concept going for much longer than that 30 minute mark without the audience beginning to ask questions about matters of logic and internal consistency.

The last act of The Frame could move with a bit more alacrity, and yet, in this case, I recommend that you indulge the film’s creators. The destiny they have “written” for their characters and unique world is one worth sticking around for.

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