Kent Tessman is the funniest person I've ever met. Except that I haven't actually met him. Or, uh, talked to him. But he is one of the regulars on ifMUD, so even though I'm not on there 24/7 like I used to be, I still see him there every day. Well, no, not "see" exactly. Whatever. In any case, in an environment where people spend most of their time trying to riff on just about everything everyone else says, Kent (or, on the MUD, "Hugo") is the best at it. Having now built this up into a big thing, the following clips will come as an anticlimax, but they're the ones I happened to note down:

Grocible says, "the cops were two women. One a pretty cute one with big eyes and the other a big ol' gruff dyke"
Hugo asks, "Which one beat you?"

Grocible says, "I wake up from a nap and of course my sore throat is still there"
Grocible says, "ARRGH"
Hugo says, "The healing power of anger!"

This would be an impressive enough claim to fame for some, but Kent is also the creator of one of the three full-featured programming languages used to develop interactive fiction, and, oh yeah, he's made a movie and gotten it onto Canadian television, where it picked up some rave reviews. Kent kindly sent me a copy (probably to stop my whining about not having one) and I prepped my VCR for the shock of showing something other than the previous hour's episode of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer". (On Tuesdays I get home at nine.)

The box draws attention to the one-man-band nature of the movie, which as you have likely gathered from the title of this page is called Apartment Story. The copy on the back reads:

Award-winning filmmaker Kent Tessman not only wrote, produced and directed Apartment Story, but — thanks to the power of digital filmmaking and a medically inadvisable level of caffeine consumption — also acted as cinematographer, set dresser, sound recordist, editor, sound mixer, visual effects designer, music composer and caterer. Well, okay, maybe he didn't exactly cater the movie, but he generally had some ideas on what might be good to eat.

Still, though, cinema is a collaborative medium. And that means we're in weakest-link territory. It doesn't matter how funny the dialogue is if the way the actors deliver it robs it of its comedy — and these actors tend to evince no understanding of why the things they're saying are funny. Sort of kills the illusion that these lines are coming out of the character's heads rather than off a page. Indeed, at times the recitation is so disjointed that the actors seem to be reciting their lines to a blue screen rather than to each other, with an effect not entirely unlike the scenes in Ed Wood movies where actors shoot at stock footage. Bang! Bang! (shot of crocodile) Bang! Bang! Bang!

Filmmakers are also limited by their equipment, unlike artists in other media. Someone with a typewriter bought for fifty cents at a garage sale can create a manuscript that looks just like one of Thomas Pynchon's. But movie gear is fricking expensive. Or rather, according to the modern hype, it was — but the digital revolution puts the ability to make a professional-looking movie in anyone's grasp! I've read the online back-and-forth on the subject, but this is I think the first of these indie digital projects that I've actually seen. And..., well, it looks like it was made on a camcorder. Really, it looks exactly like the footage we used to shoot on our non-hyped, non-digital camcorders back in high school, fifteen years ago. I guess the difference is that this stands up to being projected on the big screen, maybe? Oh, and I guess it's easier to edit and so forth. But as far as looking like an actual movie... not even close, sad to say.

This is a problem because it added to the "this isn't really happening" vibe established by the actors' line readings; the title apartment — even though it's Kent Tessman's actual apartment! where he, like, lives and stuff! — doesn't feel like a real space. Some of this may have to do with an insufficient number of establishing shots, but I think a lot of it has to do with the camera, or at least the camerawork. The actors (on those occasions where they were actually sharing the frame) always seemed to be in the same plane... there wasn't much of a sense of foreground, background, middleground. This made the apartment feel flat, like a cardboard backdrop for a stage set. Perhaps this was the intention, to make the apartment feel more claustrophobic... but it didn't work for me.

As for the themes of the picture... I've read narratives like this before, of course; dealing with isolation is the theme of what is widely regarded as the first English novel, Robinson Crusoe, with many of the same touchstones along the way ("hey, I can actually feed myself here!"). I was also strongly reminded of William Sleator's Singularity, where a kid locks himself in a shed where time flows differently — one night passes outside, but inside, a year goes by — in order to become a year older than his twin brother, whom he hates. During his year in the shed, the hero embarks on a self-improvement program, exercising, meditating, reading great works, and so while his initial motive was selfish, he becomes a better person... not the most groundbreaking of themes, but hey, it's a theme. As for Apartment Story... again, we have a hero who decides to stay in a tiny indoor space, but his motivation for this is unclear (to the audience, to the other characters, to himself). There is some mention made of it being "one of those days when you just can't go to work, except a whole bunch of those days in a row" (or words to that effect), but this is something that is said and not felt. A sample nightmarish day at the office would have helped immeasurably, even if it required the use of another set. (Surely finding an office for an evening shoot wouldn't have been prohibitively expensive?) If Apartment Story is meant as a commentary on alienation from the workaday world, that angle doesn't really work.

Is it a Singularity-style journey of self-improvement, then? Again, there's something to be said for this reading, in that the protagonist eventually tires of sitting around eating chips and playing video games and instead starts eating salads, doing situps, reading literature... but it doesn't seem to actually have any effect on him. He seems to be pretty much exactly the same guy at the end of the picture as at the beginning. The fact that he gets the girl whom he'd earlier alienated owes entirely to the fact that he's gained some small measure of fame for his staying-in stunt. Perhaps this is the point — Apartment Story might be a satirical attempt to puncture the self-improvement myth — but this seems more accidental than intentional.

So... regretfully, I have to say that I wasn't really impressed. But here's hoping that someone out there with the power to give the director a budget and a crew and a better cast was.

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