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Friday, April 5, 2013

Ruth Burgess: Kentucky-made Consignment a mysterious film that casts spell over viewers

Lexington filmmaker Justin Hannah wrote and produced 'Consignment.'


 

A film comes along every so often that casts a spell over a certain kind of audience. Like hypnosis, it doesn’t work on everyone, but to the right eyes, those films are like catnip. Some, like Mulholland Drive or Donnie Darko, become cult classics rather than Hollywood blockbusters. A few, like Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, have been known to lead viewers into full-blown obsession (there’s even a new movie, Room 237, devoted pretty much exclusively to that fact).
 

These films engage our curiosity and intuition, inviting us to explore their worlds and unravel their mysteries. The new film Consignment – a sumptuous black-and-white period piece produced here in Kentucky and currently travelling the festival circuit – is just such a film, and for those with eyes to see, offers a mysterious and thought-provoking journey to another time and place.
 

I first saw Consignment at its premiere during a short film night in Lexington this past January. The films shown that night (which also included Bizarnival, Age/Sex/Location, Sour Notes, and Watch Me) were a delightful mix of genres and sensibilities, and showed the tremendous talent of these Kentucky filmmakers and performers.
 


 

All the films were unique, but Consignment was certainly the most unusual, and its unconventional structure and sparse dialogue left many viewers scratching their heads. Its position in the lineup certainly didn’t help matters – sandwiched between two comedies (the hilarious Age/Sex/Location and dramedy Sour Notes), Consignment seemed even stranger by comparison. Even Lexington filmmaker Justin Hannah (the writer and director of Consignment, as well as host of the short film night) seemed vaguely apologetic about it.
 

Make no mistake, Consignment WAS probably the most peculiar film of the evening. It was also easily the most beautiful film of the evening, and the one that stuck with me the most after the final credits rolled. Not only that, it is among the most intriguing and well-produced independent films I’ve seen in ages.
 

That’s not to say that I completely understood it, because I didn’t. I’ve seen it maybe three times now, and each time, I catch a new symbol or a hint at some new layer of meaning. I’ve heard it described as being reminiscent of a Hitchcock film, but that’s not accurate, if only because Hitchcock films tend to make literal sense. Instead, Consignment is a beautiful and ornate puzzle, disguised as a film noir romance.
 

The film opens with the definition of consignment – “the act of consigning, which is placing a person or thing in the possession of another, but retaining ownership until the goods are sold or the person is transferred.” It’s not stated in the film, but Merriam-Webster says it also means to banish or relegate, as in “consigned to oblivion.” Behind the definition onscreen is a framed photo of an attractive couple, presumably in a romantic relationship. Both are smiling, but the scene is dark and out of focus, and the musical score hums with dread. Who are these people? Are they the “consigned?”
 

There aren’t many clear answers, although we soon find out that the pretty blonde in the photo is Margaret, a fragile young lady who finds herself one day in a consignment shop with dark secrets. Abbra Smallwood is luminescent in the role, her classic beauty and mannered nuances fitting the tone of the film like the vintage white gloves she wears.
 

Veteran Louisville performers Margaret Wuertz and Jessica McGill turn in compelling, hypnotic performances, as does newcomer Jake Gilliam. We never fully know these characters; each seems more like pieces of a riddle, half-seen or half-understood through Margaret’s eyes. Lexington actors Silvio Wolf Busch and Timothy Hull also appear in small parts, and turn in strong performances given what they have to work with.
 

Visually, the movie is elegantly lit and impeccably filmed. Hannah and cinematographer Lee Clements create a 1950s film world of alarming authenticity, not only to the details of the time, but to the movies of the time. Likewise, the score by Robert Casal is lush and atmospheric, taking inspiration from the great Bernard Herrmann scores of the 1950s without ever feeling contrived or derivative.
 

Would I blindly recommend Consignment to a random person on the street? Probably not, at least not without throwing in a caveat or two. But for those of us who are intrigued by mystery and ambiguity, and who like to think deeply about our movies, “Consignment” casts a spell, offering an alluring, multilayered film experience. Just don’t get too obsessed with trying to figure it all out.
 

Kentuckians have two chances to see the short film Consignment in April – during Louisville’s Floyd Film Festival on April 11, and during Richmond’s World Independent Film Expo on April 26-28. You may want to see it both times.

 

Ruth Burgess is a life-long Kentuckian, currently living in Clark County. She has a degree in art and in film studies and sometimes writes about the movies.

 
 
 
 
 

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