States of Control (1998)
Directed by Zack Winestine
Cast: Jennifer Van Dyck, John Cunningham, Stephen Bogardus, Ellen Greene, Jennie Moreau.
1998 84 minutes
Rated: [NR] (equivalent of an R for profanity, nudity, and sex).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, July 21, 1999.
Zack Winestine's "States of Control" is a frustrating and disappointing film, and yet, I feel guilty writing such criticisms at this exact moment because for the first 70 minutes of this 84-minute indie drama, it was edging up to become a major contender on my top ten list of the year, come next January. The film is, next to Stanley Kubrick's masterpiece, "Eyes Wide Shut," one of the most provocative motion pictures I've seen in the last year, as it deals with a woman struggling to break free from the artificial materialism that the world around her has so stringently begun to depend on.
Lisa (an eye-opening, perfectly-cast Jennifer Van Dyck) is an unsatisfied married woman in her early-30's who works at a small theater company in Manhattan. Her relationship with her husband, Abel (Stephen Bogardus), is seriously faltering, both for the passionless, controlled time they spend with one another, and because of Abel's impotency. Purposefully not sleeping and writing in her journal at all hours of the night about her internal struggle for spontaneity, Lisa's feelings are best identified by Paul (John Cunningham), a stern older man who steps in as the director of the company's latest play, and who is very truthful to Lisa about everything (he believes the novel she has spent years on is worthless; he constantly does not allow Lisa to talk about her past and he speaks none about his own because he believes it makes for boring conversation, etc.). Left alone at night for long periods of time while Abel is at work, and sexually starved herself, Lisa finally picks up enough courage to go into an adult video store and buy a porno flick, taking it home and watching it. Additonally, she is firmly against most technological advances and longs for the days when things could be more simple. While at a music shop with her friend, she states that it is getting more difficult to find records: "Once LPs came out, everything became background music."
"States of Control" is, indeed, a difficult film to identify. A truly offbeat character study of a woman, the movie obviously is anything but a big-studio picture, as it follows Lisa through a series of different vignettes and relationships, and relies on the excellent, often funny dialogue rather than big plot developments. Director Zack Winestine, making his first 35mm feature film, has written a multi-layered, engrossing screenplay and carries the camera well, too, as he paints a desolate, overly ordinary picture of New York City that mirrors the way Lisa's life will remain if she doesn't fight for the right to make her own decisions. In short, she is utterly sick of trying to make everyone else happy, and desperately wants to finally do what she wants to do.
The movie gains a lot of laughs from the on-target dialogue alone, such as when she is looking around in the adult video store. Aiding the help of a male customer on how he chooses which movie to get, she asks, "what do you look for in the films you buy? Is it a particular actor, or the story?" Another equally witty dialogue exchange is between Lisa and Paul when they are eating at a restaurant. After Lisa reveals she has written a mediocre novel, Paul asks if he could borrow it to read. "You won't like it," Lisa assures him, to which Paul quickly replies, "well, at least then we will have something in common." It is this sort of fine-spun dialogue that I delight in when I'm looking for a comedy, as opposed to non-stop physical comedy and gags (although, let it be known, I also absolutely love 1980's "Airplane!" and the whole "Naked Gun" series).
As many supposedly liberating things that Lisa does in the course of the film, however, they only lead to disappointment and an even further need for self-fulfillment. Concerning the adult video she takes home to watch, she finds the experience anticlimactic. When a photographer friend takes her on one of her intimate shoots, Lisa can't go through with the sexually revealing things she is expected to do with the male model. A one-time affair with Paul ends with him not wanting to talk to her afterwards while they're in bed, even though Lisa has something important she wants to say.
All of these failed attempts at freedom lead to the film's last fifteen minutes. Before this, it would be safe to say that I was loving every minute of the movie, only to be severely let down by the denouement. Predicting that the conclusion would stay on an even level with the rest of the movie, I expected something a bit less drastic to happen, shall we say, than what finally occurs. It would be unfair to give away the particulars of the ending, but it was extremely unconvincing, to say the least, and director Winestine's only major misstep. "States of Control," as a whole, is an astute, thought-provoking film, but the ending left me just as dissatisfied as Lisa is throughout the movie, in her journey to not follow by the rules of today's superficial society.
©1998 by Dustin Putman