‘Farewell Wake’: small world, big bang

By Bob Hicks

Mr. Scatter had so much fun doing his cameo for Charles Deemer’s new micro-movie The Farewell Wake that by the time he actually saw the movie he was surprised by how complex the whole thing was.

Rick Zimmer stars as a performance artist/provocateur in Charles Deemer's micro-movie "The Last Wake."He shouldn’t have been, of course. After all, Deemer knows this stuff. He teaches screenwriting at Portland State University, and is a terrific playwright, and a pioneer in the expanded-universe form of hyperdrama, and he’d already done another ultra-low-budget film, Deconstructing Sally, which we wrote about a little over a year ago here.

Still, when you’re having fun you forget about such things. And not a lot could have been easier than Mr. Scatter’s day on location, which consisted of meeting Deemer at a downtown coffee shop, sitting outside, doing two quick improvised takes for what turned out to be about a minute’s screen time in a 96-minute film, and then shooting the breeze for a few minutes until we both trundled off in our ┬áseparate directions. Plus, Deemer himself was the cameraman, and his camera, such as it was, wasn’t much bigger than a pack of cigarettes. Not much danger of stage fright under those circumstances.

So a movie’s a movie, and lots of low-budget flicks get made these days. But this one comes pretty close to being a NO-budget movie, and a couple of other things distinguish it.

First, the actors improvise all of the dialogue, and although there are bits here and there that you wish might be a little tighter or differently worded, it works pretty well. The actors, a lot of us amateurs, can relax and be natural. Deemer wrote the architecture of the script, then explained the scene to us and let us wing it. Think cinema verite. Think John Cassavetes, with a shot of humor.

Second, and more important, The Farewell Wake is made to be watched, for crying out loud, on your Blackberry — or, at the biggest, on your computer screen. Deemer approached the project with the idea that being tiny was an advantage, not a disadvantage, and that if he could pull this thing off it could help bust open a whole new form of cheap art for the masses: with modern digital technology and a bunch of willing friends, almost anyone could make a full-length movie.

Well, maybe not anyone. You still need to be a good storyteller. And Deemer is that. The Farewell Wake plays sometimes as a satiric romp about avant-garde art, and sometimes like a private-eye detective story, and sometimes like a philosophical reverie on the process of aging and death. It’s really a movie for grownups, and even its pacing is different from the Hollywood norm: its rhythm is more like a novel’s, which isn’t all that surprising, because Deemer’s a novelist, too. (He explains the novelistic comparison a little more deeply in an excerpt from his blog below.) Some people will get fidgety watching this, or just shut ‘er down. Others will start breathing with it and get into its zone.

Deemer obviously had great fun making The Farewell Wake, and there are quite a few genuinely entertaining supporting performances. (Martha Ullman West, Art Scatter’s senior correspondent, has an arch and assured turn as a brilliant and crusty academic critic.) But the crux of the film is the contrast between Rick Zimmer as C.D. Yarowski, an outrageous avant-garde theater director and all-around provocateur, and Deemer as C.D.’s ramshackle brother Bob, a retired high-school business teacher who’s still semi-catatonic over his wife’s death a couple of years before. Between ducking an IRS agent, a few ex-wives and a seriously ticked off girlfriend, C.D. hatches an elaborate plan to stage his own wake and maybe, just maybe, fake his own death. Bob has extreme reservations about this, but inevitably gets sucked into the vortex. Zimmer and Deemer are yin and yang, ping and pong, and the dynamic between their opposite poles gives the film its juice.

Mr. Scatter first saw The Farewell Wake in its longer form, on a biggish screen hanging in a wine shop, and the big screen didn’t do Deemer’s little hand-held camera any favors: the focus was soft and a little blurry. What’s more, because of an equipment malfunction, the sound was seriously out of whack. Later he watched Deemer’s tighter director’s cut on a little screen, and everything sharpened up and snapped into place. The sound was well-balanced, too, and you could appreciate the skill and sometimes dry humor of Deemer’s editing. (You can access both versions here; Mr. Scatter recommends the shorter one.)

Here’s what Deemer has to say about the project on his blog, The Writing Life II. It’ll give you an idea of the thought and aspirations behind what in some ways feels like a lark of a production:

Micro-movies share something important with novels. Consider how movies get seen. On a large screen in an auditorium, a social viewing, then to a smaller TV screen in a home, often seen again with others around, to a smaller screen on a computer, to an even smaller screen on a Blackberry or other electronic device. These last two viewings, certainly the latter, are solitary events. Watching a movie on a Blackberry, say, the viewer controls the rate of perception, which never happens at a theater. Think about that. Need a break? Press pause and come back to the movie later. Something is confusing? Go back and watch it again. Moreover, the viewer is physically attached to the device, or should be, by earphones, a cable, the only reasonable way to listen to audio on a micro-movie. The viewer has the same power as the reader of a book to control how the work is perceived.

Moreover, the smaller the screen, the more intense the image. Not less. More. The more concentrated, the more vibrant. By the Blackberry, you cannot tell the difference between a megamillion Hollywood movie and a zero budget micro-movie. Think about that!

The intimacy, the solitary act, of watching a micro-movie on a Blackberry encourages stories that are more serious, more difficult, than the usual Hollywood fare. Watching a micro-movie is like reading a good book: measured, focused, deliberate, reflective.

Movies can be made to take advantage of this environment. Movies can be made just for the Blackberry and other devices.

OK! Mr. Scatter thinks we just might be seeing the beginning of a trend in low-budget, do-it-yourself, power-to-the-people, new-media-driven movies. And it tickles him no end that a crusty renegade in his 70s is one of the first guys out of the gate to show the kids how it’s done.

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Photo: Rick Zimmer stars as a motorcycle-driving avant garde artist in Charles Deemer’s new micro-movie “The Farewell Wake.”