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Monday, May 11, 2009

PDX Film Fest Report #2: Jennifer Montgomery's Deliver

Posted by Matthew Vollono on Mon, May 11, 2009 at 8:55 AM

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From the PDX Film Fest Program:

“Like a generation of viewers, filmmaker Jennifer Montgomery was profoundly affected by the film Deliverance. In an attempt to both counteract and explore the hegemonic structures of gender proposed by Boorman and Dickey’s story, Montgomery set out to re-create the film using an all female cast of experimental filmmakers who work in the academic field..”

Based on the premise alone, there wasn't another film at this weekend's PDX Fest, I was more excited about seeing. Unfortunately, once the initial allure of the "re-creation" faded, Deliver became a perplexing struggle between that which it was (a heavy-handed and pretentious mess) and that which the director thought it should be (I haven't the foggiest, and if the post-screening Q&A yesterday afternoon with Jennifer Montgomery were any indication, neither did she). In many ways, Deliver has all the qualities of a student film: its highly ambitious, deeply flawed, and full of contempt for traditional Hollywood filmmaking.

Here's the trailer for the original film in case you're unfamiliar. More after the jump:


Despite Montgomery's best attempts at sabotaging Deliver's narrative power for the sake of high-minded film theory, the story of the four women somehow remain the most engaging aspect of this project. This isn't saying much, considering each performer is made to "look" like amateur actors in a film about filmmakers making a film about a book that was turned into a movie - not an easy motivation to work with, even for those who've secured tenure at a major University.

As the film progresses and more marks are made on the checklist of awful things that happen in Deliverance, (rape? check. canoe accident? check) I couldn't help thinking that, had she not cast such recognizable figures (at least in the experimental film world), this might have felt less like an exercise in clinical distance, and more like an actual film. As it stands, everything is so charged with rickety symbolism and inter-textual references there's nothing tangible left to latch onto. Oddly enough the infamous rape scene is the only dramatic segment that feels somewhat committed, as if for the first time in the film, we're actually supposed to care about the characters as real people and not simply ideas (the sound of the woman screams are especially brutal). But then, immediately following the rape, at a pivotal time in the films narrative (and yes, in spite of Montgomery's vocal distaste for the form, this film was, at its heart, a narrative) there's an awkward conversation about self-reflexivity in cinema, and we're left to question the filmmakers motivations in treating the aftermath of such a graphic rape with such levity. Is this really fair?

Had Deliver not taken itself so seriously (was that obnoxious quote from George Bataille really necessary?), it just might have worked. But no such awareness exists, and instead of leading anywhere interesting, the film just gradually dissolves, resulting in the kind of ham-fisted symbolism (dead animals, female wounds vs. female reproduction, more clunky acting) we've come to expect from just such a picture.

Even in Deliver’s strongest moments (Su Friedrich’s appearance late in the film as the “Doctor”, the great opening scene where Peggy Ahwesh paddles beneath a bridge and a girl holding a violin gazes down at her) the question of engagement is always there, as if the filmmaker were daring the audience to really commit to the material without ever giving us sufficient reason why. How are we supposed to care about a film that seems so resistant to its own vulnerability?

Of course the irony in all this, is that by the end of its running time Deliver has become such a mess of half-baked theories and indecisiveness, it matters naught whether the cast are female or experimental filmmakers or Hollywood stars. They could be cardboard cutouts of a modern day Jon Voight, and the end result would be just as disappointing.

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