Film: Stinking Heaven (2015)

March 16, 2016 | By

StinkingHeaven_poster_sFilm: Very Good

Transfer:  n/a

Extras:  n/a

Label:   n/a

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Released:   n/a

Genre:  Drama / Black Comedy

Synopsis: A suburban commune’s new member causes long seething issues among the group to emerge with special venality.

Special Features:   n/a





Stinking Heaven’s premise involves a suburban commune in 1990 New Jersey that’s upset by the arrival of a newcomer and the gradual disintegration of the order that’s kept the group together, but that’s really a flexible premise, because as it becomes rapidly clear, there’s much pre-existing discontent among the men and women who make up a roughly 8 person family, and what newcomer Ann (Hannah Gross) achieves isn’t discord because things are already on the downturn by the time she arrives.

While there’s no actual head of the family – democracy by peer pressure decides winners, losers, and the status quo – there’s father figure Kevin (Henri Douvy), his daughter Courtney (Tallie Medel) who’s having a fling with Jim (Keith Poulson), Jim’s partner Lucy (Deragh Campbell), mother figure Marie (Eileen Kearney) who handles Kevin when he has an emotional (and substance abuse) relapse, and musicians Alex (Jason Giampietro) and Fred (Jason Grisell).

Ann arrives after she’s left her girlfriend, and her mere presence sends another former flame (Kevin’s young wife of 3 days) packing, but the group is comprised of deeply flawed people failing to maintain the communal standard and rules which supposedly ensure no one’s former habits – drugs, alcohol, prostitution, sexual addiction – are supposed to return.

The rules are clear: simple fashions, no drugs in the house, and members must remain “healthy.”

Most important, everyone must participate in group activities, especially ‘re-enactments,’ a ‘therapeutic’ recreation of the trauma that brought them to the commune. Everyone takes turns in expunging bad memories, but it’s clear the circular gatherings are used as control mechanisms that quash egos; moreover, the pain these people share can’t be cured by amateur shrinks whose rewards are hugs and gentle pats, nor by a group that’s essentially lived within the same house for many years, venturing outside for groceries or to sell the group’s lone commercial product – a piss-coloured fermented “tea” brewed in a bathtub and sold in mason jars to unsuspecting locals.

The commune is the kind of facsimile middle class suburbanites would conjure after reading a few articles and watching PBS documentaries, adopting elements that only translate to their simple world rather than a more spiritual philosophy; and like a modern cult, the group videotapes the most combustible re-enactments as part of some clinical study which outside of the commune bears no scientific worth beyond cataloguing their own disintegration. The unprotected, crudely markered tapes are stored carelessly in a wardrobe, and one expects the group to ultimately implode and engage in a terrible act of mayhem… but that doesn’t really happen, because Stinking Heaven wasn’t anchored to an actual shooting script.

As Campbell recalled in a Q&A at the March 14, 2016, screening at the Royal Cinema (part of MDFF’s monthly indie film series), the actors created their own characters, some opting to send on-camera video diaries to inspire both themselves and director Nathan Silver, and when shooting began the cast was given two rules: portray their characters as sober and being supportive of each other; and have no script material to reference, relying on whatever Silver had slotted for the day’s filming.

Shot mostly in chronological order in a house where the cast & crew lived for a month, Stinking Heaven might seem more than a bit loose – a day’s scenes may have stemmed from new ideas inspired by a prior day’s filming, and there are a few continuity issues (Poulson’s beard growth is sometimes highly inconsistent) – but it works as a fragmented, sometimes elliptical drama where the overwrought tragedy at the end is wholly in tune with the self-absorbed characters, the mind games played when a someone’s died, and a passive-aggressive power struggle that follows.

Perhaps the lone flaw is that amid the layered dialogue mixes in the living and dining room discussions, it’s hard to grasp the names of the characters; they’re not similar, but there’s little opportunity to recall names and pin them on specific characters in the first half.

Improvised dialogue and strong performances are the film’s more overtly unique aspects, but Stinking Heaven’s also novel for being shot with a vintage Ikegami HL-79E 3-tube ENG video camera which gives the film a remarkable look.

It’s an aesthetic that’s as important to the 1990 period setting and drama as was Andrew Bujalski’s use of older B&W industrial cameras to recreate the late seventies for his Computer Chess (2013),  but cinematographer Adam Ginsberg worked wonders in transcending the camera’s limitations by muting the inherent flaws of the gear and creating beautiful colour compositions. The lighting was mostly practical but effective in creating a sweaty movie where the characters themselves rarely bathe or shave (because the bathtub’s fermenting ‘tea’), and when they do bathe, it’s a communal exterior drenching that precedes a trip to sell their mason jars.

When there’s no hot spots in the footage (it’s a problem in bright exteriors and filming brightly lit surfaces), the colours are quite vibrant, and while some viewers may react hard to the film’s look, the first scenes in the house guarantee all eyes are on the characters due to the engaging lead actors. Stephen Gurewitz’ editing reduced the material to its most essential and compelling segments, and Stinking Heaven really doesn’t need to run any longer than 70 mins.

Even when digitally projected, Ginsberg’s translation of the footage from standard def to HD is very clean, and many of the inherent flaws of interlaced SD footage have been smoothened out. In terms of a feature film shot using vintage tube cameras, Silver and Ginsberg’s approach could be branded a game-changer by proving how well a classic look can be imported and retained in a digital release instead of a faux tube look created with digital filters and plugins. Bridging the film’s period look with its final digital rendering is Paul Grimstad’s appropriately sparse score, which contains contemporary and analogue synth elements that creep in and give the film a bit of momentum when the dialogue exchanges run for extended periods.

Campbell’s recollection of the month-long shoot is amusing in that the house wasn’t the most ideal environment – lying on the carpet left “a slime that would stick to actors” – but as she stated with humour, “it wasn’t super-fun in the thick of it, but I quite like [the film].”

Nathan Silver’s Stinking Heaven is available as a digital rental / purchase download from Vimeo and iTunes, and as a limited VHS release, but those really keen to see how well Ginsberg’s cinematography retained the camera’s tube look should stick with the digital version.



© 2016 Mark R. Hasan



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